The CEO of Gripen-maker Saab said the firm is considering developing an unmanned version of the jet. (Lasse Jansson/Swedish Armed Forces)
HELSINKI — Saab is considering a plan to develop an unmanned version of its next-generation JAS Gripen-E multirole fighter as the company sets its sights on winning a series of medium-size international orders for about 300 manned Gripen-Es in the next 20 years.
“We expect to produce a large number of unmanned aircraft in the future. However, the military cannot afford dual systems [of both unmanned and regular aircraft],” Saab CEO Håkan Buskhe told reporters. “This is about finding cost-effective solutions to enable decisions regarding whether a plane will fly with or without a pilot on various missions. These present significant opportunities to develop the Gripen in the future.”
Saab is also confident it can find lucrative export markets for its Skeldar V-200 land and marine unmanned aerial system, which is being developed as a multimission-capable aircraft incorporating several alternative engine types with a modular payload design and a capacity to utilize a variety of data link systems.
Buskhe said Saab remains confident that Switzerland will ratify the purchase of 22 Gripen-E aircraft, despite opposition to the project among a number of political parties in that country.
The company is also optimistic, Buskhe said, that it will generate further export sales of the JAS Gripen-C multirole aircraft in coming years.
“It is entirely possible that we can secure new orders for the JAS Gripen-E already before this decade ends,” Buskhe said. “We also hope to sell a number of Gripen-C aircraft during this period.”
The Swiss order, valued at US $3.3 billion, is crucial to the successful development of the JAS Gripen-E, said Peter Hultqvist, chairman of Sweden’s Parliamentary Committee On Defense.
“As matters stand, the Swiss government is committed to the acquisition of Gripen-E aircraft, but there is a lack of political consensus for the purchase within the Swiss Parliament’s two chambers. The main issues in dispute are cost, type of aircraft and funding for the purchase. There are even calls for a referendum in 2014 to decide the issue,” Hultqvist told Defense News.
The collapse of the Swiss deal could trigger a clause in the Swedish government’s agreement with Saab covering the acquisition of 60 Gripen-E aircraft. This was approved by the Swedish Parliament in December.
“That clause stipulates that the state can cancel the order if Saab does not have an international export order or Gripen-E development partner. This makes the Swiss deal fundamental to the viability of the JAS Gripen-E program,” Hultqvist said.
The Swiss government is working on a plan to replace the Air Force’s aging Northrop F-5E/F Tiger fighters after 2017. Deliveries of new replacement fighters is set to commence, under the Fighter Modernization Project, in 2018.
It is unlikely that the Swedish government would pull the plug on its 60-aircraft order with Saab, given the long-standing and deep tradition of political support for the country’s defense industry, said Luk Peeters, a Brussels-based industry analyst.
“The Swedish government has a huge stake in the Gripen-E’s development. It has already invested almost $2 billion at various stages up to now. It will not want the project to fail,” Peeters said. “Nor will it want Sweden to lose the valuable aircraft design expertise, production technologies, the skills and the industrial employment opportunities that come with projects such as these.”
Such ambitious, upscale projects as the Gripen-E would be beyond most nations twice Sweden’s size, Peeters said. Saab’s commitment to control design and production costs, and bring program modules in under budget, means it has managed to keep the government on its side.
“Saab has assured the government that it can produce each Gripen-E for a lower unit cost than the Gripen-C. This commitment to keeping costs in check should make the aircraft not only more cost-efficient but also easier to export when it is bidding against comparable but more costly fighter planes,” Peeters said.
Saab’s strategic direction regarding the Gripen-E’s development, as well as the potential to use in-house technologies to produce an unmanned version, will be mapped out by Buskhe at the Paris Air Show on June 18, said Saab spokesman Sebastian Carlsson.
“This is a very interesting time for Saab, and the Gripen-E and the proposed unmanned Gripen are part of the overall development process,” Carlsson said.
State support, export success, retaining cutting-edge skills and expertise, together with producing top-drawer military systems to strengthen national defense capability, have long been the four pillars of Sweden’s industrial-defense policy base, said Allan Widman, the Liberal Party’s spokesman on defense.
“What is important is that Sweden develops a Gripen-E that is exportable, and that does not risk draining resources away from core areas of our defense,” Widman told Defense News. “We still need monies for fighting vehicles, naval ships, artillery systems and military bases. We also need to see a higher level of spending on defense. Otherwise, we risk having too much of a funding focus on the Gripen-E program.”
The success of Saab’s Gripen-E program could be significantly boosted if the company manages to find other customers for the aircraft apart from Switzerland, Peeters said.
“Saab is looking globally for customers, and it has a realistic chance of securing orders in countries like India [and] Brazil. It is investing a lot more resources in marketing its wares in South America and Asia. This could lead to a payoff,” Peeters said.
Funding for the Gripen-E program was bolstered in February when the company received development monies totaling $1.64 billion from the state defense materials agency FMV. The funding covers development on the Gripen-E from 2015 to 2023, including the adaptation of test and trial equipment, simulators and rigs.
The total value of possible orders under Saab’s JAS Gripen-E “complete” development agreement with FMV amounts to $7.3 billion, of which $2 billion has now been received. The remaining orders within the agreement are expected to continue up to the end of 2014.
Other segments of Saab’s funding agreement with FMV includes possible orders to modify 60 Gripen-C to Gripen-E aircraft, and the delivery of 22 new Gripen-Es, and related equipment, to Switzerland, subject to final approval by the Swiss Parliament. ■