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‘The Future Of Defence Tech Will Be Defined By Smart Software’

Jan Widerstrom, Chairman and Managing Director, SAAB India Technologies tells BW Businessworld’s Manish Kumar Jha that the company had a comprehensive Make in India programme, complete with a manufacturing facility, transfer of state-of-the-art technology and creation of an aerospace ecosystem.

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The Swedish SAAB began its tryst with India in 1974 with the sale of SAAB Carl Gustav Anti -Tank System. It got entrenched in the country in 2007 and in 2012, set up the SAAB India Technology Center. Jan Widerstrom, Chairman and  Managing Director, SAAB India Technologies tells BW Businessworld’s Manish Kumar Jha that the company had a comprehensive Make in India programme, complete with a manufacturing facility, transfer of state-of-the-art technology and creation of an aerospace ecosystem. The company is also offering India the multi-role fighter aircraft, Gripen E.

SAAB is at the forefront of  R & D. In futuristic technologies like AI (Artificial Intelligence), Robotics, Internet of  Things (IoTs), can we leverage SAAB’s advantage here in India?
If  you talk of  next generation technologies and applications related to Artificial Intelligence (AI), drones, robotics and the Internet of  Things (IoT), then it is a big “yes” from my side. If you look at the proportion of  the development cost of  fighter planes today, how much is the service related or software? If  you look at the estimated development of  the capability, we see that from 1960 till date, evolution has been tremendous, but for the future curve it is exponentially high. We have a graph that shows that the future of innovation is a straight line going like a 90 degree.

We are now talking about the next generation fighter which will fly for another 50 years – the biggest challenge. Knowing this, we are going  to be totally different. But the hardware - wings, engine, metals – as a shell will remain so, but the interior is going to be completely different. In case of India, the IT and related application and their integration in the field of defence, someone has to develop the curve to create that environment.

The technological development taking place at Saab within the field of missile technology is resulting in a multitude of new capabilities which can be utilised by future clients and customers. Saab has also laboured intensively in developing  the next generation of coastal defence missile systems, something in which many nations have shown considerable interest.

What is the future of defence in terms of technology and business globally and in India?

Today, Saab invests heavily in areas such as innovative materials, algorithms, and signal processing - to name a few. India has tremendous opportunity to excel in these areas. For example, Sweden is consistently ranked as an innovative and if you look at the research ecosystem, 20 per cent is government and 80 per cent is the private sector and that is where India needs to reach. Today, India has the opposite, 80 per cent is government and 20 per cent is private sector.

It is private industry that should be driving the research. For example at SAAB, we put about 20 per cent to 30 per cent of our turnover as we need to be fast and agile. The interesting aspect of  technology  is that it is all about speed. What is being done today will be obsolete soon. And, here comes the idea of being protectionist, which works nowhere in the course of future technology. There is an expiry date and there is no point protecting as the innovation curves goes up and the existing one becomes useless.

Saab India Technology Center is the earliest among R&D initiatives in India.  Please tells us about some of the works undertaken?

Yes, we have done substantial part of the R & D in India for  the Gripen E and the same goes for submarines technology. So, it is quite a broad spectrum. We are doing everything from mechanics to software development and testing. Besides, we have achieved substantial cost saving in the range of 30 per cent to 50 per cent for some of  the projects undertaken in India. We are into pure R&D for the development of components in India.

Please also elaborate on your plans for the Make in India initiative?
Regarding Make in India, our offer stands, regardless of the RIF and what we are looking at to set up sustainable capabilities. Let’s talk about the capabilities and not just Transfer of  Technology for some solutions. You need to transfer the capabilities and that is  what we are planning to do. And, it will not be only about producing a few Gripen Fighter planes but supporting India and Indian Air Force with next-generation fighter planes solutions as well. This is part of  the offer.

The commitment is to transfer the full capabilities to HAL or others, so they can develop. Saab has a comprehensive Make in India programme, which will include establishing a manufacturing facility, transfer of  state-of-the-art technology, building an aerospace eco-system in India, creation of a local supplier base, employment and skills development for a well-trained Indian workforce. Gripen E is the most advanced fighter aircraft with a clear and well-thought-through Make in India package.

As a front runner for the new MMRCA Fighter Aircraft RFI, how do you differentiate Gripen E in terms of stealth?
I would like to take a step back and ask you: what does the Indian Air Force need? From the existing fleet composition, they (IAF) need the fighter plane to do the bulk of  the work – thousands of  flight hours and an affordable solution that can do that.

Gripen E is the next generation and comes with tremendous capability, and, most importantly it has low-cost flight hours. Gripen is substantially lower in its Life Cycle Cost (LCC) than other fighters, including single-engine fighters. A 2012 study by IHS Jane estimates the flight hour cost of Gripen at $4,700 per hour, with its closest competitor being the Block 40/50 F-16s at an estimated $7,000 per hour.

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