COLOGNE, Germany — Top Swedish defense officials have thrown their weight behind Saab’s bid for the multibillion-dollar HX fighter competition in Finland, arguing the Gripen aircraft would enable unprecedented cooperation between the two countries in thwarting a hypothetical attack by Russia.
The Finnish race is one of two big-ticket aircraft competitions in Europe — Switzerland being the other — where major vendors from both sides of the Atlantic are jockeying for position. Finland has requested final offers by the end of April from Airbus for the Eurofighter; Dassault for the Rafale; Boeing for the Super Hornet; Lockheed Martin for the F-35; and Saab for the Gripen E/F.
Helsinki has budgeted roughly $12 billion for the program.
Swedish Defence Minister Peter Hultqvist said the aircraft competition comes during a “deteriorating security situation” around the Baltic Sea, which he blamed on Russian military flexing. He framed greater defense cooperation among the Scandinavian countries as a prerequisite for standing up to Moscow’s “aggressive moves.”
“Air defense is a vital part of this,” Hultqvist said during an online press conference on Feb. 16.
Brig. Gen. Anders Persson, the Swedish deputy chief of the Air Force, zeroed in on Sweden and Finland as potential points of incursion for Russian forces. Adversarial airplanes could enter their airspace in large numbers, benefitting from the countries’ long northeast orientation, he said.
In such a case, the more exposed Finnish air fleet could fall back west on bases in neighboring Sweden, a feat that would be more easily accomplished if both countries had the Gripen, Persson argued.
“We’ll be like one air force with two commanders,” he said.
Saab CEO Micael Johansson dangled the prospect of enhanced industrial cooperation with Finnish companies, especially because the customer would get a role in developing new features on the Gripen.
“This aircraft has an architecture that makes it upgradeable in a very short time,” he said.
Johansson also praised the capabilities of another aircraft: the GlobalEye early-warning and spy plane, which Saab is offering to Finland for the country’s military modernization program. The aircraft’s sensors would essentially nullify stealth features of attacking aircraft, he claimed.
Warplane makers have been pulling out all the stops, often with help from their respective governments, to advertise their aircraft in the Finnish and Swiss competitions. Saab’s Gripen offer was eliminated from the Swiss race in 2019 because the “E” version of the plane wasn’t fully ready for the Swiss government’s flight demonstration regime at the time.
However, Saab is still banking on international expansion led by a sale of the Gripen to Brazil, Johansson said.
Norway, the westernmost neighbor on the Scandinavian peninsula, is upgrading its Air Force with F-35s.
Sebastian Sprenger is Europe editor for Defense News, reporting on the state of the defense market in the region, and on U.S.-Europe cooperation and multinational investments in defense and global security. He previously served as managing editor for Defense News.