The Swedish government reportedly may scale back its purchase of Saab-built combat aircraft to as few as 40, raising fears over the future capability of its Air Force. (Patric Soderstrom / Scanpix Sweden via AFP)
HELSINKI — The Swedish government reportedly may scale back its purchase of Saab-built combat aircraft to as few as 40, raising fears over the future capability of its Air Force. One party spokesman also worries that fewer purchases will put Sweden on the path to have a smaller Air Force than Norway.
Doubts over the size of the state’s order is further complicated by the lack of certainty over the sale of the aircraft to Switzerland. Sweden has made clear it will cancel funding for the program if the Swiss deal fails to navigate a series of hurdles.
In Sweden, the concern is that Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt’s center-right administration might bow to rising national debt pressures and reduce the buy of JAS Gripen-NG E/F aircraft.
“The government had initially favored acquiring 80 to 100 fighters. This was reduced to between 60 to 80 units last spring. Now it is talking of purchasing 40 to 60 aircraft,” said Staffan Danielsson, a member of Parliament with the ruling Center Party, who sits on the national Parliamentary Defense Committee.
“The order should not fall below 60. Even at this level, the Air Force’s capability will be more limited,” he told Defense News.
The government, which has largely abandoned its status as the regional defense leader, a position that hinged on an Air Force with up to 150 front-line fighters, is expected to outline its next-generation (NG) aircraft acquisition plans to Parliament by mid-December.
If the government reduces its Gripen order, Sweden could weaken its front-line fighter capability and threaten its ability to provide a credible national and regional deterrent to attack, Danielsson said.
In 2004, the Air Force had more than 200 Gripen combat aircraft in the A/B and C/D variety. The number dwindled to 100 C/D aircraft after 2008.
The government is now proposing to reorganize Sweden’s air-defense structure to just one fighter type, the Gripen E/F, phasing out the remaining Gripen A/B and C/D types due to cost.
“While cost is always a factor in play, the military would benefit from having E/F and C/D systems operate in parallel to each other in the transition period until the Air Force has a full complement of next-generation fighters in service. I do not see why this cannot happen,” Danielsson said.
However, Maj. Gen. Micael Bydén, the Swedish Air Force’s chief of staff, has dismissed the notion of operating two modern fighter systems concurrently.
“It would not be feasible to operate two separate systems in the current economic climate. It just would not fit, in terms of affordability, to run two systems,” Bydén said in a statement.
The government’s reluctance to meet the Armed Forces Command’s (AFC’s) request to boost defense spending after 2013 provoked defense chief Gen. Sverker Göranson, in July, to warn that the military would be “forced to mothball large parts of the Army, Navy and Air Force.”
The AFC would like the budget set at an annual level of $6.5 billion to $6.7 billion. At this level, it could avoid cuts in areas such as exercises, pilot training, routine air surveillance, and participation in international missions and recruitment.
The command raised its defense funding and fighter acquisition concerns during a public hearing on military projects and financing convened by the Riksdag on Nov. 8. Göranson attended the meeting.
“Sweden needs a minimum of 60 to 80 fighter aircraft to meet the needs of the assessed technical and operational threat we face. That number should preferably be 80,” Göranson said at the meeting.
Moreover, the defense chief provided cost estimates for maintaining the existing fleet of 100 Gripen C/Ds, and an alternate estimate that covered the probable cost of purchasing a foreign-produced fighter.
According to AFC estimates, the Air Force would require $8.9 billion to maintain and upgrade its existing C/D fleet between 2022 and 2042. The cost of procuring 40 to 60 foreign-produced multirole combat aircraft was estimated at $16.3 billion. This estimate includes the flyaway cost, logistics, training and weapon systems.
“What materialized very clearly from the public meeting is that the government’s proposed financing of the fighter acquisition project is inadequate. This project needs to be funded properly. Talk of international partnerships to develop the E/F Gripen is nice, but without real orders, it’s just a distraction right now,” Fredrik Olovsson, the opposition Social Democrat’s group leader on the Parliamentary Finance Committee, told Defense News.
Saab’s preliminary costs submitted to the government suggest the company can deliver a Gripen E/F at roughly $80 million per jet.
Moreover, the government puts the total cost of acquiring 40 to 60 aircraft, including development and lifecycle costs, at $13.5 billion. The Air Force expects to take delivery of the first Gripen E/F aircraft in 2023, with the fighter expected to stay in service until 2043.
Swiss Partnership Shaky
Saab’s figures for serial production are based on receiving a final order for 22 E/F fighters from Switzerland. Sweden in August guaranteed delivery for a fixed cost of $3.25 billion.
The fragility of the Swiss order was apparent on Nov. 14, when Swiss Defense Minister Ueli Maurer said he was unsure if Parliament would approve a financing package for the Gripen E/F purchase.
“It will be difficult, but we remain hopeful it can be approved. It will be a lot harder if the final decision is decided by referendum. We could face tough opposition,” Maurer said in a statement.
For its part, Saab claims it can turn a profit on the Gripen-NG project if orders exceed 60 jets.
“We have presented the Swedish government with a tender and are actively discussing a future order of Gripen-NG. At the same time, global interest in Gripen remains high,” said Saab CEO Håkan Buskhe.
Parties became concerned in September when the Swedish government revealed that it had included an exit clause in its 2013 budget, allowing it to pull out of the Gripen-NG project if the Swiss sale collapses and no other international partner can be found.
Defense Minister Karin Enström defends the Swedish government’s track record on defense spending, pointing to a plan to provide an additional $300 million to the military over the next 10 years. The AFC argues that the increase, averaging $30 million a year over the period, falls well short of meeting the force’s daily core operating and procurement needs.
And one party spokesman warns that if the cutbacks go through as proposed, Sweden’s Air Force will shrink below Norway’s. That country’s Air Force has 46 F-16s, which are to be complemented and eventually replaced by 52 F-35 joint strike fighters.
“Sweden has changed from being the Nordic region’s foremost military power, with the biggest Air Force and defense budget, to now lagging behind Norway in terms of spending. Norway will also soon have a bigger Air Force,” Peter Rådberg, the Green Party’s defense spokesman, told Defense News. “What we have is a defense starved of funding and which is walking on crutches. If the military is forced to carry a major share of the cost of a new JAS Gripen project, it will crash.”