Sweden’s futuristic medium fighter, the Gripen NG, has been given a second chance in the $11 billion contest to select a Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) for the Indian Air Force (IAF). The Ministry of Defence (MoD) has asked Gripen International, which last month failed to send the Gripen NG fighter for trials in India on the dates allotted by the IAF, to send the fighter for trials in the middle of May.
Business Standard had reported, on March 9, that Gripen International had sent older Gripen-D fighters for trials because the Gripen NG was held back in Sweden for improvements for the Swedish Air Force. Technically, that was a violation of the terms of the competition.
But senior IAF officers have told Business Standard that they would not allow a legalistic interpretation of rules to narrow their options. Explains a senior air marshal who is involved in the decision-making, “We have a time window until the middle of this year, during which each of the six fighters in the tender are undergoing three stages of trials and inspections. As long as the Gripen NG is ready for trials within that period, we will evaluate the aircraft. All six vendors will have a level-playing field”.
Besides the Gripen NG, the other fighters being evaluated by the IAF are — the F/A-18 Super Hornet; the F-16IN Super Viper; the Dassault Rafale; the Eurofighter Typhoon; and the MiG-35. While all but the MiG-35 are already in service, the Gripen NG is still under development. Just a single ‘demonstrator’ aircraft has been built to prove its capabilities. Next year, Gripen will build the first Gripen NG prototype.
Gripen International has welcomed the MoD’s decision. Gripen’s India campaign head, Eddy de la Motte, told Business Standard, “Our plan was always to bring the (Gripen NG) demonstrator to India. The Swedish government’s sudden tasking is being completed right now. We will soon be ready to go to India and we will provide the IAF with maximum opportunity to evaluate the fighter”.
The first of these opportunities will come next week, when an IAF team travels to Sweden to evaluate the Gripen’s firing of a ‘Beyond Visual Range’ air-to-air missile. It is learnt that Gripen International will make the Gripen NG demonstrator available to IAF pilots, if they wish to fly it in Sweden next week. If the IAF accepts the offer, it will be the first time an Indian pilot flies the Gripen NG, albeit with a Swedish ‘safety pilot’ in the rear cockpit.
While Gripen International expresses confidence in their fighter, it now faces trials in conditions hotter (and, therefore, more unfavourable) than all the other contenders. IAF sources reveal that the Gripen-D performed well in last month’s trials; despite that, the Gripen NG will be put through a full battery of tests, including high altitude testing in Ladakh.
The Gripen NG is significantly more capable than the Gripen-D. It has a more powerful GE-414 engine; it carries more fuel and, therefore, has greater range; and, with 10 hard points for weaponry, the Gripen NG has extra teeth. It will also come with a new AESA radar, electronic warfare equipment, and upgraded avionics.
Senior IAF officers, while happy with these features, also highlight the Gripen NG’s downside: A high level of US electronics, weaponry, and the GE-414 engine. And, the F-16IN and the Gripen NG are the only two single-engine aircraft in the contest, which places them at a disadvantage in terms of reliability.