Adanis enter aerospace manufacture, partner Saab to build fighter jets

IAF’s choice appears to be between Saab’s JAS 39E Gripen or Gripen E (pictured) and Lockheed Martin’s F-16 Block 70 | Photo: Reuters
In New Delhi on Friday, Saab – a Swedish company that has built more than 5,000 aircraft in its 80-year history – announced a partnership to build the Gripen E fighter with the Adani Group – which has not yet built even a single aerospace component. 

The Saab-Adani combine will compete against a Lockheed Martin-Tata Group alliance that was announced in June, to sell the Indian Air Force (IAF) at least 100 single-engine medium fighters. The IAF’s choice appear sto be between Saab’s JAS 39E Gripen (or Gripen E), and Lockheed Martin’s F-16 Block 70. 

Addressing a joint press conference in New Delhi, Gautam Adani of the Adani Group and Saab president, Hakan Buskhe justified their partnership in terms of “shared mutual values” and a “commitment to nation building”.  

A Saab-Adani Group joint press release today stated: “A collaboration between Saab and Adani will combine the technical and product excellence of Saab, along with the industrial engineering, system integration and mega project execution capabilities of Adani with the intention to manufacture defence systems locally in India.” 

But sceptics within the defence and aerospace industry believe the key value the Adani Group brings to the table is its proximity to political decision-makers. 

Queried about Adani’s lack of experience in defence manufacture, Ashish Rajvanshi, aerospace and defence head for Adani, pointed out that the “strategic partner” (SP) policy aimed at building such experience in an inexperienced private sector. “Outside HAL and DPSUs, who has design and systems integration experience in fighter aircraft, submarines and helicopters in India?” he said.

Several uncertainties hang over the single-engine fighter acquisition, which is being pursued under the SP policy. The defence ministry must first choose Saab as a qualified “original equipment manufacturer” (OEM); and also select Adani Group as an SP that will build the fighter in India with technology transferred from the OEM. 

Saab and Adani Group declined to reveal where the Gripen E assembly line would be set up in India. 

While Lockheed Martin has experience in building F-16 assembly lines abroad, notably in Turkey and South Korea, Saab has not yet built fighters abroad. It is currently in the process of establishing a line in Brazil to build the Gripen E. 

Hakan Buskhe (2nd L), Saab's CEO, and Gautam Adani, Chairman of the Adani group join hands at an event to announce their collaboration to bid for a contract to make fighter aircraft in India, in New Delhi (Photo: PTI)
Buskhe talked up the prospect of exporting Gripen E from the Indian line, claiming that Saab’s internal assessments were that 400-500 fighters would be sold globally, comprising 7-12 per cent of the world’s fighter market. 

Asked how many of those would be supplied from India and how many from the existing Swedish line, Buskhe stated there were no plans to expand production in Sweden, so much of the global business would flow to India. “We would definitely export from India for the global market, provided your government thinks that’s a good idea”, he said. 

The Gripen E is an advanced version of the Gripen D fighter that Saab had earlier offered the IAF in a 2007 tender for medium multi-role combat aircraft (MMRCA). The IAF rejected the Gripen D, and also rejected the F-16IN Super Viper, an earlier version of the F-16 Block 70 fighter that Lockheed Martin is now offering. 

The F-16 Block 70 has more advanced avionics than the earlier Super Viper, especially its electronically scanned airborne radar, the APG-83 Scalable Agile Beam Radar (SABR), built by Northrop Grumman.

The new Gripen E too is significantly improved over the Gripen D. In addition to advanced sensors and radar, the Gripen E incorporates a more powerful General Electric F-414 engine in place of the GE F-404 engine in earlier Gripen variants. It has also been equipped with electronically scanned Selex Raven-05 radar. 

Buskhe stated today: “We started [developing the Gripen E] in 2013, when we were honoured by a contract from the Swedish government and, a year later, from the Brazilian government. In less than four years, we have had our first flight.”

He said Saab would begin delivering the Gripen E to Sweden and Brazil in 2019. In addition, Buskhe cited interest in the Swedish fighter from 5-6 more countries that he declined to name.

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