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India’s Quest for Replacement of the Ageing MiG 21 Fleet of the IAF
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Issue Vol. 32.2 Apr-Jun 2017 | Date : 28 Jun , 2017

Swedish aircraft maker SAAB and US defence contractor Lockheed Martin are the runners-up in a fierce international competition to supply the Indian Air Force (IAF) with up to 250 new Western-made single-engine fighter jets in the 2020s. Lockheed Martin has proposed to move its F-16 production line to India in accordance with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s “Make in India” initiative. SAAB followed suit and pledged to set up its own aircraft production facility in India should the Gripen-E aircraft be selected.

On February 13, 2016, President and CEO of Swedish aerospace and defence company SAAB, Hakan Buske indicated that they were ready to develop, manufacture and undertake the final assembly of its Gripen fighter jet in India. While attending the ‘Make in India’ week in Mumbai Buske said, “We could, with true Transfer of Technology (ToT), provide the Indian Air Force (IAF) with an Indian-built combat aircraft of the future, with the technology of the Gripen E multi-role aircraft.” Followed by this, the report that Air Chief Marshal Arup Raha, the then Chief of the Air Staff, had capped a tour of Sweden with a flight in a SAAB Gripen-D on June 10, 2016, came at a crucial moment. This was just a few weeks before, when Saab unveiled the Gripen-E fighter, the significance was easy to miss. The new plane looks just like earlier versions, familiar for 30 years. But the extensive re-design is a major advance for the Swedish Air Force. It also represents the possibility for largest arms deal in Swedish history.

India has been evaluating the Gripen since 2007, originally as a candidate for a new medium fighter. The Gripen was too small for that role, and the Rafale from Dassault of France was chosen instead. This time the situation is very different, as India looks for a single engine, light weight fighter jet. But there are serious hurdles for both countries to overcome – economic, political and technological. A sale of 120 aircraft has a potential value of at least $12 billion (roughly SEK 100 billion). An order for as many as 200 aircraft is thought feasible. A sale on this scale would ensure the viability of an industrial sector whose future otherwise looks increasingly marginal. It would also be a major test for the viability of Sweden’s revolutionary new arms export policy, with its unique democracy criterion. While competitors such as the manufacturers of the Rafale, Eurofighter and Sukhoi are free to sell to Middle East kingdoms, Swedish defence firms desperately look for democratic clients.

There is a major review under progress of the procurement procedures in the Ministry of Defence…

For India, much is at stake as well. The Gripen is an appealing alternative to its domestic Light Combat Aircraft Tejas which is externally similar, but poorly regarded. The IAF is buying limited numbers of the Tejas, but only under pressure from the government. Meanwhile, it needs something to replace its fleet of 370 ageing Soviet MiG-21s, its dominant light-weight fighter, from its preferred foreign supplier. For India, though, purchasing some 120 Gripen-Es could mean abandoning the national dream of an independent military aircraft industry. India would, therefore, insist on massive industrial offsets and technology transfers, thus making the Gripen deal, the future guide to an industrial and diplomatic relationship in big ticket defence procurements.

Jan Widerstrom, Chairman, SAAB India, said that, “SAAB is not only looking at setting up a base here but also helping in the development of aerospace capability for many more years to come.” Widerstrom added that SAAB will not simply move an assembly line, but will build development capability, “We will design, develop, produce and maintain in India including technology transfers to improve the Tejas or future projects.” However, for India the choice remains open, with the Lockheed F-16, the Boeing F/A-18, the Dassault Rafale and the Eurofighter Typhoon still being viewed as serious alternatives. Also, more Russian MiG-29s cannot be ruled out. Any such strategic decision is unlikely to materialise very soon. There is a major review under progress of the procurement procedures in the Ministry of Defence.

Going by a report in The Times of India dated May 15, 2017, India does not get enough bang for its buck in the arms business. With this in mind, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) is now looking to create a specialised Defence Procurement Organisation (DPO) to streamline mega arms acquisitions as well as leverage them to build a robust Defence Industrial Base (DIB) in the country. Sources in the (MoD) said that creation of the DPO as “a strategic imperative for long-term self-reliance” would be the second big-ticket defence reform to be set in motion after the “Strategic Partnership (SP)” policy is finalised to boost the private sector’s role in defence production.

“Vested with some autonomy, the DPO will function as the powerful executive arm of the Defence Acquisitions Council (DAC) led by the Defence Minister. After the DPO is approved by the Cabinet, it will take around two years to take full shape. It will also have legal, costing and contracting experts, who are largely missing in the existing system,” he said. Therefore, it would be safe to assume that the minimum lead time for any contract to purchase and manufacture a single engine fighter aircraft will take more than two years at least.

Lockheed Martin says the F-16 is ready for any challenge, combining innovative structural and capability upgrades…

Swedish aircraft maker SAAB and US defence contractor Lockheed Martin are the runners-up in a fierce international competition to supply the IAF with up to 250 new Western-made single-engine fighter jets in the 2020s. Lockheed Martin has proposed to move its F-16 production line to India in accordance with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s “Make in India” initiative. SAAB followed suit and pledged to set up its own aircraft production facility in India should the Gripen-E aircraft be selected.

Currently, the IAF operates 33 fighter squadrons and wants to increase that number to 42 by 2027. This would require at least six additional squadrons of medium multi-role combat aircraft. During the recently concluded Aero India Show at Bangalore commencing on February 14, 2017, the Gripen E fighter aircraft on display by SAAB was the star attraction for all, professionals and enthusiasts alike. The SAAB team at Bangalore claimed that the Gripen is a unique fighter concept, bringing a perfect balance between excellent operational performance, high-tech solutions, cost-efficiency and industrial partnership into one, smart fighter system. That is why they call it “the smart fighter”.

The Gripen is a new generation of multi-role fighter aircraft featuring state-of-the-art technology. It is capable of performing an extensive range of air-to-air, air-to-surface and reconnaissance missions employing the most modern range of weapons. The Gripen is designed to meet the demands of current and future threats, while at the same time meeting strict requirements for flight safety, reliability, training efficiency and low operating costs. Designed to ensure outstanding combat agility, the Gripen features a delta-canard configuration with relaxed aerodynamic stability. The delta wing and canards along with the digital Fly-By-Wire Flight Control System give the fighter an optimum combination of manoeuverability, acceleration, top speed and short-field performance.

The Gripen has highly developed net-centric warfare capabilities. The objective is to find and exploit information. With this definition, every Gripen unit is net-centric, considering the high-end sensor suite and strong focus on datalinks for sharing information within the Gripen Tactical unit. The Gripen already has Link 16 which is used for battle space control in large NATO-led operations, as well as digital CAS and video link for cooperation with Forward Air Controllers on the ground. The Gripen is a true multi-role fighter, designed as such from the very beginning. This means it can perform missions in all the three roles – air-to-air, air-to-surface and reconnaissance. While airborne, it can change roles and can even act in multiple roles simultaneously. This simultaneous capability is likely to grow over time, as the Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) radar and other systems are further developed.

The Gripen has stable, affordable acquisition and low-life cycle costs. This gives air forces a reliable basis on which to budget for operations and fleet sustainment over the long term. The Gripen’s inherent reliability and low maintenance footprint boosts force levels and operational effectiveness. Gripen E test pilot explained that the fighter mission can be compared to large-scale chess games where the fighter allows you to get the right situation awareness in order to communicate the right information to take the adequate decisions. The same analogy to chess games applies regardless if the mission to perform is air-to-air, reconnaissance or air-to-ground. In all the cases, the fighter needs the following:

  • Information
  • Movement
  • Weapons

The Gripen E fighter is equipped with the latest available technologies in those keys areas. Some of the features that make the Gripen E – “a Smart Fighter” are as follows:

AESA stands for Active Electronically Scanned Array and means that, in contrast to older generation radars, it has not only one antenna but a full array of small antennas, called elements.

This means that the radar can simultaneously and independently track different targets and also track targets independently of search volumes.

Gripen E is a network-centric fighter and can communicate two ways with all armed units. It has a secure and multi-frequency data links system that provides total situation awareness.

The acquired information – along with information about each Gripen’s position, fuel and weapon status is shared with other Gripen fighters via the datalink.

The Gripen E is built for high survivability in a combat environment. Gripen tactics are based on smart use of a variety of electronic warfare capabilities.

The Radar Warning Receiver (RWR) is the source for an accurate sensor for detecting emitting threats such as radar. And the Missile Approach Warning (MAW) system can detect and track incoming missiles of all types.

IRST, an electro-optical system mounted on top of the nose, just in front of the canopy and is looking forward in a wide sector registering heat emissions from other aircraft, helicopters and from objects on the ground or on the surface of the sea.

The tactical advantage of a passive sensor is that it will not give your position away.

Almost any weapon can be integrated, giving the Gripen E very high weapons flexibility. This is partly due to the flexible avionics architecture. Because of its well-documented ease of new weapons integration, Gripen served as the main test platform for the Meteor, the latest long-range air-to-air missile.

The highly-advanced EW system can function as a passive or active sensor, warning for incoming missiles or radar looking at you. It can also be used for electronic attacks and jamming other radars. Coupled with countermeasures such as chaff and flares, the EW system can enhance survivability.

On the other side of the display, was the American F-16, in service the world over since 1978. For many in the IAF it would be a surprising and disappointing move, given that F-16s are a critical part of Pakistan Air Force’s fighter arm. Besides, it would ensure that F-16, a 40-year-old design and fourth generation fighter, would remain in the IAF for another 30 to 40 years.

American aerospace and defence technologies company Lockheed Martin representatives said that the F-16 Block 70 for India, the newest and most-advanced F-16, will strengthen the strategic partnership between India and the United States. “We have partnered with India for more than 25 years and remain committed to fostering technology development, manufacturing and strategic collaboration. Today’s global security environment requires proven success to protect what matters most,” the representative said.

Lockheed Martin says the F-16 is ready for any challenge, combining innovative structural and capability upgrades such as the Active Electronically Scanned Array radar with new avionics architecture. The Block 70 software further enhances capabilities through an advanced data link, precision GPS navigation and Automatic Ground Collision Avoidance System. Spokesperson for the American defence major Lockheed Martin at the Aero India Air Show said that the discussions are currently taking place between the US and the Indian government on the company’s plans to set up a manufacturing base for F-16 fighter jets in India. “The conversation has progressed to the point that we are deferring at this point to the government-to-government conversation. And that conversation is ongoing.” By far, the Gripen-E appeared to be the favourite choice of the majority in Bengaluru. Whatever the case, SAAB Gripen or Lockeed Martin F 16, this quest would fulfill both ‘Make in India’ projections and also give the IAF an advanced fighter by 2020. 

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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

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Danvir Singh

Associate Editor, Indian Defence Review, former Commanding Officer, 9 Sikh LI and author of  book "Kashmir's Death Trap: Tales of Perfidy and Valour".

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4 thoughts on “India’s Quest for Replacement of the Ageing MiG 21 Fleet of the IAF

  1. Aircraft made in Europe – with the exception of France – tend to pick components like missiles, targeting pod, AESA radar, EW suite, data link, etc. from top of the European manufacturers. It works for them, and this is what Saab did vis-a-vis the Gripen also. It might be worthwhile considering the Gripen E – if SAAB agrees to integrate into the India-made Gripen E, missiles, targeting pod, AESA FCR, EW suite, radio & data link, etc. that are already in use by the IAF. But, SAAB has no solution to the weakest link of them all – the engine, as SAAB uses the US GE 414G to power the Gripen.
    As part of the offset clause on purchase of the Rafael fighter, Dassault Aviation and France are helping to sort out certain technical problems faced in the production of the Tejus LCA. This includes assistance from Safran/Snecma – manufacturer of the Dassault Rafale’s M88 engine, to produce an appropriate engine for the Tejus Mk2 LCA.
    SAAB and Sweden should be asked to help iron out the remaining technical problems and production bottlenecks that HAL faces, so that the Tejus LCA can transition from version Mk1 to Mk2, bypassing Mk1A.
    So, should India give preference to the Gripen or its own Tejus? Tejus undoubtedly, as an aircraft cost just USD 25 million, compared to around USD 75 million for the Gripen E.
    The Gripen E has a delta wing configuration – like the Tejus, but SAAB should be asked to design and produce a carrier based variant of the Gripen for the indian Navy — which has a requirement of around 56 fighter jets. SAAB has a Gripen E simulator that would help pilots familiarise themselves with the multi-role fighter.
    How does it fare vis-a-vis the F16 being offered to India? On friendly exercises against F16s, the Gripen had no problem positioning itself behind the tail of the F16s. The F16s could not match the super maneuverability of the Gripen. But the F16 can clock 4,500kms without air refuelling. Thst is well over a 1,000 kms more than the Gripen. 

  2. The problem with Russian products (like MiG-29s) is that a good part of the defence manufacturing was originally located in the Ukraine. This has affected production and availability of spare parts. And the Russians have a lackadaisical attitude to time and cost overruns. In short, unreliable suppliers, but they think they’re doing India a big favour.

  3. All sorts of ill feeling are being created by Commies on one side and another side western lobby. and people are carried away by those articles. War strategy is a specialised field and everybody will not get the talent. I am studying about defence requirement for the last seven years. Every day I read at least defence article like an article given below and try to find out the solution if it happened to India.
    “”Flash Point: America’s Lethal F-22 vs. China’s Fiery HQ-9“”
    Except me, I do not think any Indian read this article. Nowadays China is doing blunders. The majority of people start spending money when they become rich within a short period. China’s balance of payment position is very good. The majority of the project they have taken without checking whether it is economically viable or not. The CPEC and Gwadar port is a clear example. The same thing happened in Sri Lanka. CPEC is passing through disputed territory. India has not gone and attacked any country because we believe in “Loka Samastha Sukhino Bhavanthu”. Now other countries are started understanding this policy and admiring India after the present Govt came to power. So the world order has changed in favour and the Almighty is helping India in the case of China and Pakistan.The CPEC and Gwadar port is a blessing and disguise to India. CPEC and the new port are with striking distance of our powerful missiles. The Pakistani army showed the good strategic point in 1998. The distance from Kargil to CPEC is 235 Km. Within Bhramos missile distance. Like this, there are three to four points to defeat Pakistan. The CPEC and the new ports are two GEMs to China. So neither China attacks us nor allows Pakistan attacks us. So this is the time to control expenditure on defence and try to export as much defence goods as possible like Israel.

  4. How do you come to a conclusion the replacement for Mig-21? IAF has already 272 number SU- 30 Mki as the replacement for Mig 21. So replacement required only for Mig-27, from 2018 own words. About 87 numbers. Su 30 Mki is equivalent to two Mig-21. Have you heard about CNC machines? One CNC machines are equivalent three to four turret lathe machines, Except Mig 27 all the fighter planes can conduct sorties independently without a rear gunner. This means IAF can conduct sorties double the number of sorties. than 1971. The requirement of sorties is based on the destructive power of the weapons used. Now India has got more powerful weapons than 1971. The Pakistan and PAF installations are within striking distance of the missiles. Everybody blames DRDO. But they have also done good developmental work in spite any encouragement from any side. For every delay the defence officers and the media blame. the DRDO. But they have developed many missiles which will reduce the usage of fighter aircraft, Please read the article given below:-
    “Prahaar Short-range Ballistic Missile Provide India A Deadly Edge over Pakistani Army”
    Why do we require fighter plane in future in large number? India can very well manage with SU-30 Mki and Tejas. China is claiming they have developed radar which can detect stealth plane Then what safety it has got against multiple missile attacks. It is not possible to increase speed, it is not possible to reduce the size. Gnat fighter plane performed far better than any other planes because Pakistan radars failed to detect its movement as the size was small. The Cost of one f-16 is 25 million dollars.The Cost-per-Flight-Hour of the Lockheed Martin F-16C is about $22,514.00 for an hour’s flight including fuel, pilot’s wage, armament and maintenance costs etc. Now cost of Agni- II is 5.4 million dollars. Its range is 2000 Km. It can carry more ammunition than any other fighter planes. No maintenance cost. No runways or hanger required.

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