By N. C. Bipindra
New Delhi: Swedish Saab AB is unsure of Indian major Adani Group as its strategic partner for the world’s largest combat aircraft programme in India, two years after they joined hands to work on the project.
The Swedish defence major now wants to work with more than one company if it wins the over $15-billion combat jets order from the Indian Air Force, and is now looking for a tie-up with Indian state-run Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) as one of the multiple partners for the project.
“We have not yet chosen our one Strategic Partner for the 114-aircraft programme. We want to work with multiple partners in India on this project and are pushing for our thought with the Government of India,” Saab AB’s Head of the Gripen India Programme Mats Palmberg said in a virtual interaction with a select group of defence journalists today.
“We haven’t excluded anyone nor have included anyone as the Strategic Partner,” Palmberg said to a specific question regarding Adani Group with whom Saab Group had announced a high-profile tie-up for the Indian programme in 2018.
Saab Group has offered its Gripen E as the independent choice for India to meet its requirement for single-engine fighter planes to replace the Soviet-era MiG-21 jets that are already being phased out.
The company has also offered to establish an industrial base and ecosystem in India to build 85 per cent of that 114-aircraft requirement through a technology transfer, as required under the Request for Information issued in April 2018.
It hopes that India will take the next step in issuing a Request for Proposal (or tender, in common parlance) for the 114-jet programme in the Spring of 2021 and the contract could be signed by 2023-24 time frame.
The project is being pursued by India under its Strategic Partnership Policy of the Defence Procurement Procedure 2016 that envisages one Indian company as the Strategic Partner for the programme and creation of an aerospace ecosystem in India.
As part of the ecosystem for the industrial base, Saab AB wants to work with HAL, which, Palmberg said, could join as an equity partner in the special purpose vehicle, Indian Aircraft Company (INAC) that the Swedish major intends to set up in India.
“HAL can become an equity partner in INAC or a work partner or take up Maintenance-Repair-Overhaul of aircraft under the project. We want to work with HAL in the Gripen E programme for India,” Palmberg said. “We are open for a partnership with HAL in this equation.”
HAL had in 2018 joined Boeing Co. and Mahindra Group in a three-way partnership to pitch its F/A-18 for the same Indian Air Force fighter jets requirement for which Saab AB is now coveting the Indian Defence Public Sector Undertaking‘s partnership. Boeing Co. has also now pitched its F-15EX to India in its latest move earlier this year.
The 114-aircraft procurement project is part of Narendra Modi’s $250-billion military modernisation plan to plug the gaping holes in India’s defence capabilities to meet the twin challenge from China and Pakistan.
India and China, two nuclear-armed Asian nations, are already in a military face-off since May this year in Ladakh, where India has deployed its modern fighter jets such as the French Dassault Aviation’s Rafale and Russian Sukhoi Su-30MKI.
India had earlier this month inducted five Rafale jets into the Indian Air Force at the Ambala air base. India had signed up for 36 Rafale jets in 2016, a year after cancelling the 2007 tender for 126 fighter jets that Dassault Aviation had won in 2012, as contract negotiations were going nowhere.
Saab Group, which had contested the 2007 tender too, is competing for this Indian programme against Dassault Aviation, American Boeing Co. and Lockheed Martin Corp. (F-21), European Airbus Defence (Eurofighter Typhoon), Russian Aircraft Corporation (MiG-35) and United Aircraft Corporation (Su-35), both offered by Russia‘s Rosoboronexport.
In Dec. 2019, Saab AB’s Chief Executive Officer Micael Johansson had told this writer in an exclusive interview that the company is seeking full control of the local manufacturing in India if it wins the contract for the 114 jets, and if it has to take full responsibility for quality, delivery time, cost of the aircraft and capability that are required by the Indian Air Force.