DUBAI — Saab’s deal with Bulgaria for the Gripen C has fallen through, and firm contracts with Slovakia, Croatia and Botswana have proven elusive, but the company’s head of aeronautics is still hopeful that it can sell the Gripen C to one or more of those countries.
Bulgaria announced in April its intention to acquire eight new Gripen Cs, but by September the country had backed off those plans after a special parliamentary committee found that the process that led to the Gripen’s selection had not been fair.
Speaking to Defense News at the Dubai Airshow, Jonas Hjelm, Saab’s head of aeronautics, said that he believes the Gripen C is still the best choice for Bulgaria’s fighter program. The Swedish fighter initially competed against two secondhand aircraft: F-16s from Portugal and Eurofighter Typhoons previously owned by Italy.
“From my point of view, that’s a domestic thing in Bulgaria, how they perceive that the process was ok or not ok. I don’t think it was against Gripen, I think it was against the process,” he said in a Nov. 12 interview with Defense News.
“I think what Bulgaria said is that they want to redo the process, which of course is a disappointment for us, since we understood that we were downselected, but in our mind if they restart the process, obviously we hope to be in the race again,” he said. “We will see what kind of time schedule they lay out.”
Saab also continues to discuss a potential purchase of Gripen C/Ds with Botswana. Defense News reported last year that Botswana and Sweden were negotiating the purchase of between eight and 12 Gripens, but no final deal has been reached due to obstruction from opposition parties, according to South African newspaper The Southern Times.
“They are, as far I know, still interested,” Hjelm said. “Exactly when things are going to happen, I don’t really know today, but we are in constant talks with them, as well as Croatia and Slovakia.”
Neither of those countries have yet made a decision on their fighter jet competitions. Croatia plans to buy 18 aircraft to replace its MiG-21s, and will weigh four bids that include the Gripen, new F-16s from the United States, as well as used F-16s from Greece and Israel.
Meanwhile, Slovak Defense Minister Peter Gajdos said in September that the country would not award a contract to either Saab or Lockheed Martin, which offered the F-16, until at least six months down the line. Slovakia plans to buy 14 aircraft to replace its MiG-29s.
“Both of the countries have a process going where we are definitely hoping to be on the number-one spot,” Hjelm said.
While sales of the Gripen C are proceeding more slowly than desirable, Saab’s production line is in no danger of shutting down, as it has orders from Sweden and Brazil for the next-generation version of the aircraft, the Gripen E/F.
The company is making steady progress on Gripen E. The aircraft made its first supersonic flight in October, and Saab remains on track to deliver its first aircraft to Sweden and Brazil in 2019.
“Very soon we are going to get payload on the aircraft and starting to actually test the aircraft more from a tactical point of view, but we’re still in the basic aeronautical side of it,” Hjelm said.
Although the Middle East is not a major target for Saab’s Gripen business, the company bought the Gripen C to Dubai for flying demonstrations and a static display because of the large attendance by customers in Europe, India and Africa, he said, pointing to Finland and Switzerland as potential customers for the Gripen E.