LINKÖPING, Sweden — Saab is eyeing three competitions in Botswana, Bulgaria and Slovakia as key near-term opportunities to sell more of its Gripen C/D fighter jets and re-energize its production line, company officials said Tuesday.
One of those countries, Bulgaria, seems poised to cement a deal to buy eight new-build Gripens to replace its MiG-29s. In April, Bulgarian interim Deputy Prime Minister Stefan Yanev announced that the Saab jet was the preferred option, potentially beating out secondhand F-16s from Portugal and secondhand Eurofighter Typhoons purchased from Italy.
"What happens now is they are forming the new government, so now we are waiting for information on how to proceed," Richard Smith, Saab’s head of Gripen marketing, told reporters during a May 9 briefing in Linköping, Sweden. Defense News is attending a Saab media trip this week and has accepted hotel and travel accommodations from the company.
While the Gripen production line will be kept humming into the foreseeable future with orders for new E/F models from Sweden and Brazil, the last delivery of the C/D variants occurred in 2015. Smith confirmed that Saab had started some "essential work" on new "C" models to shorten the delivery timeline for future orders, but declined to elaborate on whether that included purchasing long-lead items or if some construction had begun.
"We haven't specified those aircraft for a specific country, and we've not built any white tails," he said. White tail is a term used to describe aircraft made without a firm customer on order.
Besides Bulgaria, Botswana and Slovakia provide the most immediate sales opportunities for C/D models.
Saab has responded to a request for proposals that Botswana issued in June 2016. Its offering includes new-build jets, pilot and technician training, initial logistics support, and other local support. The Gripen will compete against Korea Aerospace Industries' FA-50, a fighter version of its T-50 trainer.
"We feel that now the discussions move forward with Botswana, and I think in terms of what we're offering, we're offering genuine fighter capability for Botswana in the future," Smith said.
Meanwhile, Slovakia is seeking to replace its MiG-29 fleet and issued its latest fighter RFP in 2016. Saab, which has been engaged in discussions with the Slovakian government since 2015, is offering a package of C/D varients with logistics support, training, local support and maintenance.
"Now we are waiting a decision from the Slovaks … on how to proceed," he said.
Saab is also moving forward with preparations for the Gripen E's first flight, expected to occur before the end of June. Although the physical design of the Gripen E looks almost identical to the C/D, Saab officials stress that it's a completely different plane, with a more powerful engine, improved range and new avionics.
The company will begin delivering the first Gripen Es to Sweden and Brazil in 2019. The Swedish Air Force plans to buy 60 Gripen E/Fs, and Brazil has put in an order for 36 aircraft — although it may need up to 100 new fighters to replenish its force.
Brazilian Brig. Gen. Márcio Bruno
Bonotto, president of the coordinating committee of combat aircraft program, told reporters that if the Gripen E proves itself, Brazil would consider expanding its buy.
"We have a number in mind [of fighters that will be needed], but we haven't started to fly [the Gripen] yet," he said. "So after seeing the capability of the aircraft, this number can change."
Saab is also searching for further customers for the "E" model, Smith said. The company plans to propose the "E" model in Belgium’s fighter competition, where it will face off against the F-35, Rafale and Typhoon. Finland is also in the early stages of its own competition and is set to release an RFP next year. Saab responded to the country’s request for information about the Gripen in late 2016.