– By Raflanker

It turns out that HAL LCA Mk-2 is delayed by a year or more. The initial timeline was for rollout in 2023-24 with 1st flight in 2024-25 and induction by 2028-29. However, now as per latest statements coming out of HAL it seems all these events are delayed by at least 1 year. Who is to be blamed? Who is the culprit? Well, a lot has been said on this matter, with claims and counter claims. But what we will analyze today is the buzz that has been generated out of these events. What appears to be a new marketing push by, what can be assumed as LCA MK-2 direct competitor a.k.a. Gripen E/F. Developed on similar line as LCA MK-2, GripenE/F is an upgrade over Gripen C/D. The aircraft saw induction with Brazilian Air Force and is also ordered by its home country Sweden. Let’s first understand in brief the features and capabilities of Gripen E/F.

Gripen E/F

Gripen E/F involved enlarging of fuselage over Gripen C/D with a more powerful engine i.e., RM16, a variant of GE-414 to compensate for the weight increase due to design changes. This also allowed more hard points, payload capacity and increased fuel capacity to enhance range. Larger internal space also allowed mounting of majority of EW suite internally instead of it being pod based. Other improvements came in form of large Area Display in cockpit, GAN based AESA Selex ES-05 Raven radar, IRST, MAWS, etc. The aircraft empty weight increased from 6.8 tons to 8 tons with internal fuel capacity increasing from 2.4 tons to 3.4 tons. Weapons suite too got newer system integrated like Light weight air launched decoys, electronic attack jammed pod etc. Overall Gripen E saw a decent upgrade over Gripen C.

Gripen E V/S Rafale

Gripen-E is portrayed as best placed alternative against ordering further Rafales (either directly or through MRFA competition). The main argument in support of this claim is that Gripen E is single engine and allegedly way cheaper than Rafale in procurement, operations and maintenance. Further it is claimed that logistic commonality in weapons and engine will allow streamlining of logistics. This is nothing more than an argument. Other than engine, I don’t see any commonality, not even in weapons barring couple of them.

Before we get into detailed analysis, let’s have a look into performance of both the aircrafts.

TWR CLEAN (50% FUEL)1.041.25
TWR (A2A & 50% FUEL)0.891.11

It’s quite evident from the specs that Rafale offers better performance than Gripen-E in almost every aspect arguably other than radar. Rafale Spectra EW suite is considered one of the best in the world. The towed decoy will provide better chances of survival then air-launched one, as you will fire them only if you are aware of the threat. Now let’s move on towards economics. The one argument that is being pushed forward in defense circles by advocates of Gripen E is that it is relatively cheaper to acquire and operate and since IAF is short on funds, it should go for cheaper alternative, instead of going for costly Rafales. First thing that should be made clear is that IAF has no shortage of funds, in fact it is the one which gets most out of Defense Budget capital allocation. IAF gets in excess of $6bil per annum. Sparing $ 10 bil over a span of 7 years out of $ 40-45 Bil is no big deal for IAF, especially when it is short on squadrons and again and again fails to spend its entire funds. The problem here is decision making and not budget. After all, they have been acquiring other platforms with ease, be it SAM, transport aircrafts or AWACS. Coming to the cost perspective, on paper, the Gripen appears to be cheap. But when we move towards an actual comparison, obviously, operational costs wise, a single-engine aircraft will always be cheaper to operate. However, what about the cost of acquisition, logistics, etc.?

 (We should mention that it is not right to compare two deals, but then we have to provide relative pricing to draw conclusions.)

The Rafale deal to India cost around $8.7 billion for 36 aircraft. This deal included aircraft, Indian-specific changes, associated weapons, performance-based logistics, airbase upgrades, pilot training, and simulators. A certain portion of this was said to be a one-time investment (pilot training, simulators, base upgrades, and Indian-specific changes). This portion was said to be about 40%. So, this means that the 72 aircrafts with logistics and weapons will cost the IAF $10-10.8 billion. This is consistent with similar orders given by Egypt and Qatar.

Egypt got 24 Rafales for $5.9 billion in 2015. They further ordered 30 more Rafales in 2021 for just $4.5 billion. Similarly, Qatar ordered 24 Rafales for $7.02 billion in 2015. The next batch of 12 Rafale was ordered for merely $1.3 billion.

To compare it, we will take only the export order that the Gripen E has so far, i.e., 36 Gripens E to Brazil. The initial deal between the Brazilian Air Force and SAAB was for $5.44 billion. But with multiple time and cost overruns, the deal ended up being of $9 billion. Though it has to be attributed to changes demanded by BAF, we must accept that even the IAF will demand changes to suit its requirements. The further order of 26 Gripens is pegged at $2.2 billion. However, it remains to be seen whether there will be a cost overrun in this batch too or not.

Now, even if I assume that the IAF gets the plain vanilla Brazil deal of 36 aircraft at $5.5 billion, it takes the total cost to $8.6-9 billion (not including the cost of setting up a production line in India as well as the ToT cost, as I am considering a G2G deal; otherwise, infrastructure already exists in India for Rafale). The next batch of 72 Rafale under G2G should cost the IAF $10-10.8 billion. So, the difference, if any, in both deals is not major, considering the capabilities difference between both fighters.

Another point that should be raised is pilot and crew training. Having less type of aircraft allows streamlining of pilot and maintenance crew training and obviously spares commonality too. Let me explain it in layman’s terms. Suppose you have 500 fighters divided into 3 types versus 500 divided into 6 types. Now assume each pilot or crew is trained to operate 2 types, which means you have fewer pilots available who can fly each type as you increase numbers. And if you plan to train pilots to fly more types, it comes with a cost and will also not allow proficiency, similarly it will be for maintenance crew. Another problem that arises out of it is maintaining spares specific to a particular aircraft at different bases to allow it to be operated from non-home bases and limiting the deployment flexibility while obviously creating cost and logistic issues. All these can be maintained in peace time, the real issue comes around war which is unpredictable. You must try to have less type of aircrafts serviceable at more bases than having more types of aircraft limited to specific bases. The same situation arises with pilots. Suppose you lose a large number of pilots of a particular type, and you have too many types of aircraft. Either you won’t have enough pilots to fly or you will have to incur costs and time in conversion training, and that too in the middle of a war. It also defies logic to add yet another aircraft to an already diversified IAF inventory if 36 Rafales are here to stay for the next 30 years. Furthermore, a lot has been invested in offset deals, such as the RBE-2A TRMs being manufactured by BEL. There is also an MOU in place between Dassault and BDL to integrate Indian weapons on the Rafale. All these capabilities will end up being underutilized.

The last point that needs to be raised is that if the LCA MK2 offers similar specifications and performance, why acquire another aircraft that’s supposed to be its cousin? Let’s discuss this briefly.

Why the Gripen E if we have the LCA MK2?

Obviously, the LCA MK2 is delayed, but is it delayed by so much that it warrants the purchase of an aircraft that is similar in capabilities and will arrive just a couple of years earlier, assuming everything goes right? Won’t we be criticizing the deal in 2030, saying why are we getting the Gripen E and the LCA-MK2 at the same time when both offer the same capabilities?

Well, if I assume the Gripen deal is declared this year and the contract is signed by 2024, the first jet will take around 24-36 months to arrive, putting it around the 2026-27 time frame. The LCA-MK2 will be in the advanced stages of testing by then. By 2029-30, you will be getting your LCA-MK2, by the time you will likely have the first squadron of Gripens flying, and that is by assuming everything goes right and the deal is signed next year.

Honestly, Gripen E should never be discredited as it is a highly capable fighter aircraft. However, the point being made is that it makes little sense to acquire it for the Indian Air Force (IAF) when what it offers will also be available in the form of the LCA MK2. What is needed is a fighter aircraft primarily in the strike role, and the Rafale was designed to fulfill that role with greater payload capacity, more hardpoints, better thrust-to-weight ratio, and better low-flying handling capabilities.

Finally, the deal should be a government-to-government (G2G) deal, and it should be the last import of a fighter aircraft for India. Right Approach for IAF should be to have 13 Sqdrn of Su-30, 6+3 Sqdrn of Tejas, 6 sqdrn of Rafale, 10 Sqdrn of LCA-Mk2 replacing Mirages, Mig 29s and Jaguars. These should be added by 6-7 Squadron of AMCA Mk-1, while AMCA mk2 should start replacing Su 30 from 2040 going full Indigenous.

By Alpha Defense

Alpha Defense initially a solo venture but now a defense group by people from various demographics of India covering defense news and updates. We believe in unbiased analysis of every subject in hand. Our mission is to provide simplfiied defense information to the public.

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