LINKOPING, Sweden — Saab's Gripen jet, for years often seen as an also-ran in international fighter competitions, is turning that reputation around.
The trajectory began to change in October by the finalization of a deal to sell 36 Gripen NG aircraft to Brazil and a 2015 Swedish government commitment to buy 60 JAS 39 Gripen Es and Fs.
"Our order backlog is at an all-time high," Ulf Nilsson, head of Saab aeronautics, told reporters here on a Saab-sponsored press tour.
The Brazilian choice of the New Generation (NG) Gripen was announced in December 2013, ending a years-long competition between Saab, Boeing's F/A-18 E/F Super Hornet and Dassault's Rafale to win the F-X2 fighter program. A contract finalizing the deal was signed in October for 28 single-seat Gripen NG and eight two-seat Gripen F aircraft.
The Brazilian deal, Nilsson said, was "a game changer. Before that, Gripen was an aircraft looking for a market. Now it's a market looking for Gripen. And we can see that in many ways — it's really changed with Brazil. It's more global. It's changed the way we communicate."
The F-X2 program got another boost with the April 14 announcement of a joint program management arrangement with Brazilian manufacturer Embraer, which will produce most of the aircraft in Brazil under a technology transfer agreement.
A weapons acquisition agreement with Brazil was announced April 24, but the Brazilian government has released no details, and Saab cannot comment.
The Brazilian deal — Saab's largest-ever Gripen export order — includes provisions for extensive technology transfers and industrial cooperation. And the agreement with Embraer to produce new aircraft in Brazil could have wider implications.
"We look at Embraer as another production line for Gripen," said Jerker Ahlqvist, Saab Gripen's vice president for business area aeronautics. Should more orders materialize, Gripens could be produced in Brazil for sale to other countries under joint venture agreements. Although, Nilsson pointed out, "we would have to apply Swedish export rules," which include prohibitions of weapon sales to certain countries.
And while Brazil has committed to buying 36 aircraft, "the requirement is for over 100 aircraft," Ahlqvist noted. "We believe they're looking at buying in three batches," although without another batch at least until after 2019.
Saab is actively marketing several versions of the Gripen and its combat systems. Gripen C and D can be purchased or leased. Some Cs and Ds are upgraded A and B models formerly used by the Swedish Air Force, while other aircraft are built new. All E, F and NG aircraft are new production models, and production of the first Swedish Air Force E models already has begun.
Weapons and sensors are controlled by Saab's Material System (MS) software packages, with the MS19 version installed on existing Cs and Ds. Starting this year, however, the MS20 upgrade is being offered, which includes the first operational capability of the highly-touted MBDA Meteor air-to-air missile. Qualifications trials were completed last year, and Saab executives proudly touted the Gripen as the first fighter to field the weapon.
"The addition of Meteor air-to-air capability makes Gripen the most formidable counter-air platform in service," Ahlqvist declared. The missile will become operational with Swedish Air Force Gripens in 2016.
And while a new active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar is being fielded with the E/F aircraft, Saab Defense Systems has developed a new Mark 4 version of its PS-05/A radar for the Cs and Ds.
The Mark 4 radar — discussed by Saab for the first time on April 27 — essentially doubles air-to-air and air-to-ground detection ranges, Ahlqvist said, and has improved abilities to detect very low-radar cross-section targets.
The system, he added, "offers significant functional growth through software upgrades, and offers full [advanced, medium-range, air-to-air missile] and Meteor missile integration." Impact on aircraft upgrading from Mark 3 radars to Mark 4 is "very small, an absolute minimum. You can easily switch between Mark 3 and Mark 4 configuration."
Seven air forces operate or are committed to operating Gripens, along with one British Gripen D test aircraft. The last of 75 Gripen Cs was delivered to the Swedish Air Force this year, and no further Cs or Ds are on order.
Current operators include:
• Sweden — 75 Cs, 25 Ds, with 60 Es and Fs on order
• South Africa — 17 Cs, 9 Ds
• Thailand — 8 Cs, 4 Ds
• Brazil — 36
• The Czech Republic — 12 Cs, 2 Ds
Hungary (12 Cs, 2 Ds) and the British test pilot school operate leased aircraft, and Slovakia has chosen the Gripen in a deal still being finalized.
And with commitments for at least 96 new aircraft, Saab is pushing for more Gripen sales. The company, Ahlqvist said, sees a worldwide market of 300 to 450 fighter aircraft over the next 20 years, excluding markets where Swedish regulations exclude Saab from competing — markets which include many of the air forces in the Arabian Gulf region. But, Ahlqvist noted, plenty of other markets are open.
In northern Europe, he said, "Finland is a very interesting country for us. They have a long process, we know that, but it's also quite encouraging, and we know what we can expect. We're looking to receive a request for information early next year, a request for proposal in 2018 and a contract somewhere around 2020."
The Finns, Ahlqvist said, are expected to ask for 40 to 60 aircraft, "and we see that Gripen has got a good chance in Finland." Competition is expected to include the F-35 joint strike fighter and the Eurofighter Typhoon.
A number of air forces in central and eastern Europe will need to replace aging Russian systems, he noted. "Recently, Croatia announced a program, quite a fast track, expected to name an aircraft next year to replace their MiG-21s." Bulgaria will need to replace its MiG-29s. "That will be quite a fierce competition with F-16s, but we believe there's a future for us there." Austria, Ahlqvist noted, will need to replace its Eurofighter T-1s, "but that is probably some years away." Saab is "not very active in Austria at the moment, he acknowledged, "but maybe in three or four years' time."
Saab also expects Switzerland to return to a fighter competition in a few years, despite the public rejection in 2014 of a fighter replacement program, which had chosen the Gripen. "We believe the Swiss will come back with new requests for proposals," he said.
The Asia-Pacific region is seen as an area with great potential for Gripen sales.
"We know Malaysia is interested, Ahlqvist said, "and Indonesia has started an F-5 replacement program. They want something as early as 2019. We know there's a tradition there to buy Russian, but the new president wants a transparent procurement process, and we believe we have a good chance there."
India, which chose Rafale over Gripen in the Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft competition, remains "always of interest," Ahlqvist said. "We know there is something else needed. They're struggling with their Light Combat Aircraft [LCA] program, and should there be a requirement for something else, we are there with technological transfer and industrial cooperation."
The LCA program could involve 150 to 200 aircraft, he noted, "so it's very interesting to us. We are ready to do a very comprehensive program in India."
The company is keeping watch on the Philippines, Ahlqvist said. "We have had some questions from the Philippines, but there is no formal process ongoing. But we're keeping our ears to the ground."
Saab has "a strong relationship with South Africa," Ahlqvist noted, "and from that base we're monitoring what is happening in Africa. Botswana — "one of the fastest-growing economies in Africa" — is looking to replace its F-5 fighters within two to five years, he said. "Kenya has a strong interest in Gripen, but there is uncertainty there about when they could find the money for such a program."
Namibia, "has ambitions, they want to get rid of their Chinese aircraft and find something else. But again, uncertainty about where they would find the money, although recently they've found oil and gas. But we're probably talking five to 10 years before something happens there."
Saab would like to improve marketing opportunities in South America, particularly with its manufacturing partner Embraer.
"We know Colombia is going to replace their Kfir fleet, we've had questions from them," Ahlqvist said, adding that "it will be probably be about five years before they will need deliveries. But in many of those countries, interest starts and then it's withdrawn, so it's a little bit back and forth."
Brazil could also eventually decide to buy a carrier-capable version of the Gripen for its aircraft carrier, but Saab isn't expecting a decision any time soon.
"Sea Gripen is part of the technology transfer agreement with Brazil," Nilsson said, and a study will be done. "We're in early discussions for Sea Gripen, but we'll have to see where it goes. It will probably be about 2025 before the Brazilians decide what to do."