Apart from the fact that is undoubtedly an excellent airplane, ironically, the Gripen’s biggest play is the fact that it is a relatively independent choice. Within the government, many believe the Gripen is a safe bet at a good price, and one that (like the F-16), fits in with what the IAF had originally asked for. There also exists a belief within the government that the people at Saab have pioneered and fast-tracked the Demo NG programme principally for the MMRCA programme, and taken this to mean a level of commitment. The IAF has also received and been impressed by independent testimonials from the air forces of Hungary and Czech Republic about turnaround and ownership costs of the Gripen C/D. The IAF is also quite impressed with the Gripen’s permutation configuration of systems, sensors and avionics, not to mention a quantum leap in the computer/bus (including Link 16), GCAS, satellite comms, payload capacity and EWS between the Gripen C/D and the Gripen NG. The IAF also likes the very nifty Cobra helmet mounted display system. The Gripen’s pitch that it can be turned around on the ground (engine, systems) the fastest among all contenders makes it perfect for the IAF. The Gripen team has also squarely pitched the airplane as the a perfect complement to the “big-hitter” Su-30MKIs, implying that India’s growing Flanker fleet could be inadvertently rendered superfluous if the heavy contenders in the MMRCA — the F/A-18, the Typhoon or the Rafale — were chosen for induction.
Unfortunately, the Gripen’s weaknesses are many. The biggest, I’ve outlined in the intro. The fact that is provides no strategic fruits is a big downer. The fact that Sweden promises not to interfere, but rather provide full autonomy to the Gripen India programme is simply too little in the Indian context. In fact, there are senior officers in the IAF who believe that Saab flatters itself in the belief that Sweden is powerful enough to fiddle with the strategic/military autonomy of a country like India, especially since the MMRCA provides for a total transfer of technology that very nearly precludes the possibility of any meaningful interference post-contract. Another weakness is the aircraft’s country of origin itself. Provided that the Saab proves to be the best aircraft in the field evaluation tests (FETs) — which it well might — will any Indian government, let alone the Congress — have the guts to buy Swedish ever again? If anyone has any doubts about the Bofors ghost, cast a glance at the farcical joke being played in the Indian Army’s efforts to purchase 400 towed 155-mm artillery guns. It’s been on since 2003, with an unprecedented four trial rounds. The final results laid out that the SWS Bofors gun was on top throughout. At the last moment, then Army chief General JJ Singh gave in to a firm political warning and called for a re-tender of the entire competition. It probably speaks volumes that he’s now the politically-appointed Governor of Arunachal Pradesh. A stunned Bofors still hasn’t recovered from the shock. Saab, which close links with the Bofors company, knows just what a liability being from Sweden is forever more in India. Worse, there’s no sidestepping it. Worse still, even the IAF recognises that. The tragedy is, of course, that the Gripen has absolutely nothing to do with Bofors.
Tomorrow: Part III – The Future Fulcrum
Part 1 – The Super Viper