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Typhoon, Gripen back in fray, Rafale deal split wide open
VISHAL THAPAR  New Delhi | 28th Jun 2014


ensing some hesitation on the part of the new NDA government to confirm the UPA's Rs 120,000 crore ($20 billion) defence deal for 126 French Rafale fighters for the Air Force, both the Swedish Gripen and the European Eurofighter Typhoon have moved in to try and change minds in the Ministry of Defence (MoD). The French, despite being declared the winner of the $20 billion bid by the then UPA government in 2011, have sensed the hesitation on the part of the new government. The Rafale deal will be on top of French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius' agenda, who is rushing to New Delhi on 30 June to meet top government ministers, among others.

Sweden's Gripen, which lost out in the mega competition among the world's leading fighters to determine India's Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA), has been the quickest to address the $20 billion price bomb, pointing out it's four times cheaper than the Rafale, which is also much more expensive to maintain and fly than the French aircraft, which so far has not found a single buyer outside its own country. Saab Gripen advertisements have started appearing in mainstream Indian media, projecting itself as the world's most affordable contemporary fighter. "This is an exercise to make the brand more visible after the power-shift in New Delhi," say industry sources.

The European Airbus consortium's Eurofighter, which made it to the final shortlist of two, alongside the Rafale, but lost out because it was priced slightly higher, has also kept its New Delhi representation intact. It has conveyed it's ready, just in case the protracted two-and-a-half-year contract negotiations with Rafale is judged by the MoD as bad value for the huge sum being spent on its purchase. Airbus sources say that the consortium is willing to base production facilities in India for not only military aircraft, but for civilian aircraft and helicopters as well, in order to persuade the NDA government to reconsider a deal marred by allegations made by Subramanian Swamy, a prominent BJP leader.

But it's the Gripen pitch which is really trying hard to burst the Rafale's super-expensive price bubble by stressing its own affordability. Comparative costs of the world's leading fighters compiled by the Jane's group (see box) state that the Rafale is almost four times more expensive than the Gripen in Life Cycle Cost terms. According to these figures, whereas the Gripen will cost a buyer $4,700 per flight hour over the (40-year) life of the fighter, the Rafale cost stands at $16,500. In the category of fourth-generation-plus fighter aircraft, the only fighter more expensive than the Rafale is the Eurofighter ($18,000 per flight hour), hence the willingness of Airbus to add on local production of civilian aircraft into the mix, combined with fresh payment terms.Image 2nd

On the other side of the price spectrum, the most economical aircraft after the Gripen is the American F-16 at $7,000, which too was rejected by the Indian Air Force (IAF). Significantly, neither the Rafale nor the Eurofighter — the only two fighters which eventually passed the IAF's flight trials — figured on the original shortlist of the IAF in 2004, which indicated a requirement of cheap, single-engine fighters to replace the MiG-21. The Rafale, Eurofighter and the F/A-18 — all twin-engined, heavier and more expensive fighters — gate-crashed into the competition subsequently. The Gripen and F-16 are both lighter, single-engined aircraft.

Former Air Chief Fali Major, during whose tenure the competitive flight tests were conducted, admits that the market re-shaped the requirements of the IAF. "Lessons were learnt from operating twin-engined fighters like the Sukhoi-30MKI. A point of view evolved, which favoured twin-engined fighters," Air Chief Marshal Major told The Sunday Guardian, explaining why the IAF raised the level of its requirements after 2004. This tilted the balance in the competition in favour of the twin-engined, heavier, more expensive contenders.

Gripen has also addressed reasons for its rejection in the MMRCA competition while re-positioning itself in the Indian market. "The reason for the rejection was the failure of the AESA radar during the trials in 2008-09. Gripen had fielded an under development aircraft for the trials. The problem of integration of the AESA radar with the aircraft has now been overcome," said an industry source.

Cheaper rivals, who lost out in the MMRCA competition, while signalling their availability in case of a re-look on the mega deal cleared by the UPA, are also looking beyond the MMRCA. Already 10 fighter squadrons short, the IAF needs to replace another 16 by the year 2022. Thirteen MiG-21 squadrons and three MiG-27 squadrons will reach the end of their life by then. The Rafale deal, if it comes through, will replace only six of the 26 squadrons required.

The long and elastic timelines for the indigenous solution, the Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) Tejas widens the window of opportunity. The Tejas' Final Operational Clearance (FOC) is scheduled for end-2014. There have been many deadline slippages, and the IAF has committed only to 20 Tejas fighters yet. Tejas Mark-2 with GE-414 engines, which is intended to equip four IAF squadrons, is a distant prospect. The prototype of the Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft (FGFA) is not expected before 2020. The uncertainties about delivery of all these aircraft translates into opportunity for the arms bazaar.Image 3rd

Air Chief Marshal Major acknowledges that there was a proposal for India's only aircraft manufacturer, the government-owned HAL, to buy out Sweden's Saab, which develops and manufactures the Gripen. "I was very much for it. It would have done HAL a lot of good and brought in technology. But there was a fear expressed by some over the US components in the Gripen," he disclosed to The Sunday Guardian.

According to its critics, the reason why the Rafale was chosen had more to do with political support for the French by the UPA. Incidentally, the French ambassador was the only EU envoy to skip a tea for then Chief Minister Modi arranged by German ambassador M. Steiner a year ago, for fear of offending the UPA by meeting its main rival.

A top French official contacted by The Sunday Guardian took a swipe at the "cheaper" selling proposition: "The Gripen is an honourable plane but it doesn't serve the same purpose (as the Rafale)." Taking a further dig, he said, "India is not Switzerland (which has purchased the Gripen). It does not have the same neighbours."

France realises the need to be vigilant on the finishing line. It chose to demonstrate the Rafale's capabilities recently in a joint exercise with the IAF close to the Indo-Pak border in Rajasthan. But the public disclosure about comparative costs of the world's leading fighters, where the Rafale ends up looking very pricey, is forcing both the French to be defensive in a context where an entirely different government has been elected to power in New Delhi.

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