Things have certainly been allowed to cool down after months of momentum on India’s high-profile Make In India fighter programme, peaking during the Aero India show in February. Buzz has plateau’d dramatically following the abrupt departure of defence minister Manohar Parrikar, a vocal proponent of building foreign fighters in country, and the battle that was being fought over the delayed Strategic Partnership policy roll-out. With the crucial framework now around the corner, it still very much remains India’s intention to choose and then build over 100 advanced single engine fighters in a greenfield industrial aerospace manufacturing ecosystem. And for the purposes of such a selection, as we’ve reported here on Livefist before, the Indian government stands presented a choice between two familiar platforms, both eliminated in the infamous M-MRCA contest that resulted in a severely truncated face-saver order for 36 planes as against a requirement of 126.
Between Lockheed Martin, the world’s largest military equipment manufacturer and Sweden’s Saab, a company 1/13th its size, there is little argument about who needs the Indian deal more. There have been capability gunfights in the past between the F-16 and Gripen platforms too, albeit in earlier variants. We don’t need to tell you that winning an Indian contract to build a factory that will churn out maybe 200 jets is going to take much more than edging out your rival in turn rates or cockpit avionics. In every way, the single engine fighter contest is exponentially more ambitious and complex than the M-MRCA.
Unwilling to fire directly at each other, at least officially, what we at Livefist did was invite both Lockheed Martin and Saab to joust it out. On the record. And right here. The ammunition is familiar and time-tested. But placed together in a series of freeze-frames, provides an unprecedented matrix that defines this unusual, looming competition between two aircraft separated by time and space. One, a legendary nothing-left-to-prove jet that’s fighting for a glorious chance to live beyond its time. The other, a brand new jet that bristles with promise, but hasn’t left the nest just yet. A more tantalizing face-off couldn’t possibly be imagined.
Remember, the Indian Air Force itself has compared the F-16 and Gripen before, under the auspices of the M-MRCA, though the two jets had to jostle for attention with four others — the F/A-18 Super Hornet, MiG-35, Typhoon and Rafale. This time, the spotlight rests on two eliminees from the M-MRCA, both light/medium single-engine fighters, a less than tacit admission by the Indian Air Force that the original medium fighter contest was ill-conceived and, let’s say, not predestined for success.
Livefist reached out to both Lockheed-Martin and Saab asking them to list ten pointed reasons why each believed the package involving their aircraft was best suited for the Indian requirement. We then followed this up with more detailed informal discussions with both sides. Let’s begin where it begins.
Okay, let’s kick this dogfight off with both sides jockeying into position:
That right there pretty much sums up the core of what Lockheed-Martin and Saab have going against each other. Everything the two companies have on the other is necessarily a version or mutation of this simple, immutable paradox: the F-16 is a successful, explosively proven platform with years of war-chiseled experience on its conformal fuel-tanked shoulders. The Gripen E’s word plays off of that — you had your time, Viper. We’re the future. In its answers to Livefist, Saab added, “Saab’s design philosophy focuses on continuous development, which means that future capabilities can be added to India’s aircraft by Indian engineers in a smooth and effective process for many decades to come. The combat system and capabilities that India needs today are already built into Gripen, we are planning for the systems and capabilities that India will need 10, 20, 30 years from now. India needs, and must have, a future-proof aircraft.”
Lockeed-Martin will be taking that on in a moment. But before that, let’s get into things proper, because remember, India’s single engine fighter contest isn’t a fraction just about the jets.
First shots fired. Lockheed-Martin’s stress on its experience from around the world is something they will reasonably push in a big way going forward. And why not? In this interview to Livefist last November, the company’s country lead in India would touch on the global ecosystem and supply chain angle no less than five times. And it isn’t something that can be lightly set aside. But Lockheed-Martin doesn’t take Saab’s swipe that the F-16 is a sunset fighter lightly:
Saab exudes confidence, but doesn’t for a moment forget that its foe is the world’s biggest maker of modern fighter aircraft. A legacy fighter jet with a robust, demonstrable future path is serious business for Saab. From conversations that Livefist had with company executives, it becomes clear that Saab’s countermeasure to this particular thrust — that choosing the F-16 instantly makes India a lucrative sole supplier to a vast, hungry ecosystem — is one of offence: that the F-16’s customers (including, of course, the U.S.) are almost uniformly either looking to replace the type, or plan to very soon. The other counter Livefist gleaned from conversations was that India shouldn’t expect an easy path to F-16 business from foreign operators, especially in the middle east and Europe. Finally, there is the strong submission that future customers of the F-16 are ‘captive’ partners, not countries holding competitive, independent trials. But Lockheed-Martin knows that a substantial global market that has no choice but to plug into the F-16 hub that could emerge in India as it shuts down in the United States, is too tasty a morsel to swat aside so easily.
In that particular joust above, it becomes clear that Saab knows it must stress on the future, but also feels compelled to draw on the company’s old heritage; a reminder that isn’t by any means a wet-behind-the-ears latecomer to the industry. At the same time, it mustn’t let go of its core message about being a fighter for the future. And that’s why Saab adds this little flourish in their replies to Livefist: “Think of the smartphones we use today – they have almost nothing in common with the mobile phones of 10 years ago, never mind the landlines. The model-based system design approach [on the Gripen] means that changes in tactical functions can be made very rapidly – because they will not involve requalification of the flight-critical avionics functions. A new weapon can be integrated almost as easily as adding an app, without disrupting the existing system.”
This is an important element in the face-off and is a violent one. Lockheed-Martin suggests it has built platforms abroad before and set up production facilities elsewhere (Turkey and Korea, notably), while Saab never has. The Swedes scoff right back, of course, basically saying ‘If you think that’s manufacture, wait till you see what we’re offering.’ Lockheed-Martin isn’t impressed:
Not a small shot. Drawing upon every fiber that has even makes the F-16 a successful aircraft, albeit a legacy platform, this is Lockheed-Martin jettisoning itself from the idea that the Viper is a doddering old beast ripe with age and well past its retirement date. This is Lockheed-Martin saying, there’s a reason we’ve been around so long and why this is an iconic aircraft, and oh, hey, we’ve just made it even better. And that’s a cue for Saab to invoke a catchphrase you’ll see often in conversations with the company: future-proof.
And now, the fight gets existential. It had to.
Saab looks to drill it in that the Block 70 Viper isn’t a real plane yet, though it knows such a submission scarcely takes away from the fact that the Block 70 is the next in a vast line of incremental upgrades and improvements on the legacy F-16 — and there’s no particular reason to doubt that the aircraft can exist if India chooses it to. Turning a ‘paper plane’ as some derisively refer to the Block 70, into a flying deal isn’t difficult for the world’s largest fighter maker. Nevertheless, Saab sees the opportunity in underscoring that fundamental (if ephemeral) difference. The company will likely have even more confidence with the Gripen E flying soon.
The Northrop Grumman APG-83 Scalable Agile Beam Radar (SABR) AESA in the mix is a superbly interesting addition to the fight. Touted as a fifth generation radar that’s ‘keeping F-16s relevant for decades to come, the company notes, ‘The capabilities of this advanced AESA are derived from Northrop Grumman’s family of highly successful 5th generation fighter AESA radars, the F-22’s APG-77 and F-35’s APG-81’. That’s no joke, coming as it does from the country that pioneered AESA tech. As Livefist has reported before, Saab has a twin-pronged defence to the APG-83 attack: not only does it push the Selex Raven AESA as being a worthy system, but also offers Gallium-Nitride (GaN) based AESA technology for a new generation of aircraft radars. Expectedly, neither side believes the offering from the other is a big deal. What Saab executives do wonder about, though, is if, like Sweden, India will receive source codes for the APG-83 as part of the Make in India package.
This, ideally, should be a separate post altogether. Performance aside, a systems and equipment comparison between the F-16 Block 70 and Gripen E could fill many hours. Saab knows it goes head-to-head with battle hardened and honed systems on the F-16, but still offers that the ‘combat systems capabilities built into Gripen are second to none’. Faced with a smorgasbord of formidable, proven weaponry that’ll come slung on the F-16, Saab has a robust and specific counter. In its answers to Livefist, Saab chose to highlight three weapon systems it believes tips the scales for the Gripen E: the Meteor BVRAAM missile, RBS 15F ER anti-ship missile and the Taurus stand-off weapon.
Eager to ward off the ‘experience’ factor, Saab also highlights inherent design concepts on the Gripen E thus: ‘[Gripen’s inherent design concept] is its ability to cooperate in large units, sharing targets and friendly ship information and cooperating when launching weapons. Gripen’s sensor fusion feature is crucial for communicating all target detection and tracking information to the pilot. This turns information superiority into high situational awareness. Gripen fighters share all information via tactical data links, including the NATO Link 16. This is key to the aircraft’s information superiority. In addition, each pilot can receive data from controllers on the ground or in the air. A digital CAS and video link enables further communication benefits.’
We can’t wait to see how this one turns out, especially since both cockpits are substantially new — and nothing like the cockpits in the F-16 and Gripen fielded in the M-MRCA. And having underscored its very on-board systems, the F-16 cruises into its most vulnerable spot — relevance going forward. With signature lack of time for small talk, Lockheed dives right into it.
Pulling up from that engagement, Lockheed-Martin decides its time for some offence, hitting straight back at Saab on the jibe a little earlier in the fight, that the Swedish offer wasn’t about cookie-cutting fighters in country, but an actual industrial aerospace deal that benefits India.
Questions have inevitably arisen in the last few months over whether the Trump Administration would play ball with such an ambitious shifting of the F-16 production ecosystem to India. Saab executives wonder if this lack of predictability could be the undoing of an otherwise worthy foe in Lockheed-Martin. The latter, however, is fully confident. And this is where it begins to get very interesting, throwing up a paradox that Lockheed-Martin must deal with directly. If its a top-of-the-line fighter project with so much life and potential left, why would President Trump sign off on transferring it to India. On the other hand, if Trump does so (and there’s no reason to believe that he won’t), is India to understand that Trump doesn’t consider the F-16 line worth keeping alive in the United States? Thing in reality are, of course, far more complicated than that, but it’s a weird paradox that cannot be ignored. Especially since the current American administration has specifically demonstrated the ability to reduce even difficult issues to black and white. To be sure, this potential paradox came up in discussions Livefist had with officials at the Make In India department and with MoD acquisition planners. Remember, however, that Lockheed-Martin remains one of the most influential companies in the world, one that has demonstrated the ability to sidestep bigger paradoxes (and landmines) in the past.
Aha! Sovereign. A word bristling with with meaning and innuendo that Saab wielded so aggressively during the M-MRCA contest as well. The assertion brims with implication: that Sweden would never interfere with India’s decisions on how to use platforms it builds. Unlike the U.S. — that’s the overpowering message. This is an important emotional shot that Saab sees benefit in stressing. While Lockheed-Martin hasn’t specifically countered the ‘sovereignty’ attack, the truth is India has inducted billions of dollars worth of American-built and governed military aircraft in the last decade, with billions more in the pipeline. This would appear to suggest that India has dealt with any ‘sovereignty’ or interference concerns it may have had in the past. Sure, India may have decided to set concerns aside for transport and special mission aircraft like the P-8Is, C-17s, C-130s and CH-47 Chinooks, but has similarly signed up for AH-64 Apache Longbow frontline attack helicopters. And while it’s certainly a leap from those platforms to multirole fighters capable of nuclear strike, it may not be the long one Saab perhaps hopes it is. On the other hand, the promise of non-interference and guarantees of cooperation in all circumstances are valuable to a country like India.
A concern that pops up often when talking of the Indian single-engine fighter bid is whether such a production line would sound the death knell to India’s own Tejas light fighter. This is a credible concern, given that the Tejas — on order for 123 aircraft in a mix of Mk1 and under-test Mk1A variants — is in squadron service, but hasn’t been fully cleared for operations yet. The Indian government sees the single engine Make in India fighter programme as an aerospace enabler not just for the Indian private sector, but also as a source of technology for the Tejas programme going forward, and into the fifth generation AMCA. Both Lockheed-Martin and Saab have specific package offers for the Tejas. On the AMCA, Lockheed-Martin has conspicuously kept away from offering cooperation, in hope and anticipation clearly of the F-35 maybe finding a foot in the Indian door.
The M-MRCA made an embarrassing mess of assessing cost of ownership and lifecycle expenses on purchased fighters, one of the reasons why the contest in its original form collapsed in a heap of smoke. Expect the Indian single-engine fighter deal to have a greater definition of cost going forward, from the tactical to the ownership level. Saab took this direct shot at Lockheed-Martin for the purposes of this Livefist dogfight with this graphic, sourced from IHS Jane’s data (based on a study commissioned by Saab in 2012) depicting cost per flight hour across modern fighters. The F-16 in question is the Block 40/50. (Also see: This piece from 2013, and this one from 2016 claim to report “official” U.S. government figures for cost per flight hour).
In its answers, Saab said, ‘[The Saab approach] stresses on cost being a part of the early design requirement on par in priority with operational and technical design goals. Other reasons behind breaking the cost trend include a modern diagnostics system which aims at substantially reducing time, personnel and equipment needed for fault localization and ensures high reliability, availability and maintainability. High availability is vital for air forces; they rely on aircraft that offer a long Mean Time Between Failure (MTBF) and short Mean Time To Repair (MTTR). Gripen E has been designed with this in mind. For example, the entire engine can be exchanged and tested in the field in less than an hour. These properties, together with low maintenance requirements per flight hour, give the aircraft higher availability than its competitors. Gripen E has also been designed for minimal turnaround time. For example, an air-to-air combat set up takes only 10 minutes to perform, including refueling and rearming.’
We’ll be keeping this post open, in the event that Lockheed-Martin and Saab wish to add to the dogfight based on the picture we’ve presented.
Based on current timelines, there is every hope that a winner in the single engine fighter contest will be declared in mid to late 2018. The competition is one of four projects that will inaugurate the country’s ambitious ‘Strategic Partnership’ policy. With the policy set to be promulgated shortly, the Indian MoD plans to spend less than a year identifying the Indian private sector companies that can take on the actual work of building the systems in country. The subject of this post pertains to the parallel track where the MoD will evaluate and field test foreign vendors and their products. In 2018, the narrowed down pool of Indian firms will then be provided the opportunity to forge collaborations with the chosen foreign OEMs to kickstart the Make in India projects.
Boeing, the other giant in the room, will be watching the proceedings with interest. Without a horse in the single-engine race, Boeing believes there’s a powerful opportunity ahead to build the F/A-18 in country.