HELSINKI — Håkan Buskhe’s surprise decision to step down as president and CEO of Saab Ab in 2020 happens against aggressive efforts for the Swedish defense group to strengthen core parts of its international business, and implement new technology-backed capital programs to bolster naval and combat aircraft offerings.
Saab, now ranked no. 36 on the Defense News Top 100 list, had reached a crossroads in its development when Buskhe joined the company in September 2010. Buskhe was hired as a reforming CEO, tasked with tackling Saab’s somewhat bloated operating cost base while re-focusing the group’s R&D and production activities on a narrower range of front-line products.
Buskhe also oversaw strategic projects to grow Saab’s international markets while consolidating the company’s position as the Nordic region’s largest producer of defense equipment.
In 2012, Saab laid the groundwork for a more ambitious sales drive for the JAS Gripen fighter under Buskhe’s leadership Moreover, new markets opened up in South America and Asia for other key Saab offerings such as the GlobalEye, the multi-role airborne early warning & control solution sold to Middle East and Asian countries including the United Arab Emirates.
The scope for the sale of the JAS Gripen worldwide also expanded under Buskhe’s direction. The drive also gained further momentum as part of a closer export-led relationship with the Swedish government. Saab is now hoping to achieve global sales of between 300 to 500 JAS Gripen-Es by 2035.
The company’s $5.5 billion deal to sell 36 Gripen NG fighters to Brazil reflected Saab’s new-found confidence in the aircraft under Buskhe. Saab is hopeful of striking new Gripen sales deals in Asia, South America and closer to home in Finland.
Buskhe was also pivotal to crafting Saab’s enhanced industrial-partnership blueprint to grow its business, investment and sales worldwide. The offer of industrial partnerships incorporated the carrot of local production and capital-heavy ventures with local partners. Such high value deals were offered by Saab as part of their overall sales offering on big ticket defense systems.
In the partnership domain, Buskhe also guided Saab to raise its profile in the United States through a strategic partnership with Boeing where the two collaborated joint bids to supply the USAF with an advanced trainer aircraft. As part of the alliance, Saab agreed to establish manufacturing facilities in the U.S. to assemble T-X advanced trainer aircraft.
Buskhe also pushed military-industrial collaboration at a Nordic level, seeing it as a tool to accelerate consolidation within the defense sector regionally. The period 2014 to 2016 saw a flurry of mergers and acquisitions activity by Saab and rival Nordic actors Patria and Kongsberg. In the case of Saab, the company’s acquisition of the Denmark-based mine counter-measures firm Nordic Defence Industries signaled its intent to lead the consolidation drive.
The stand-out deal during Buskhe’s reign at Saab will be the company’s acquisition of ThyssenKrupp Marine Systems AB (formerly Kockums) from ThyssenKrupp. The acquisition added a much sought after underwater naval technology capacity to Saab’s business portfolio, and lifted its ambition to expand in to next-generation submarines and underwater craft systems.
The ThyssenKrupp Marine Systems bolt-on enabled Saab to secure a $1 billion contract to design and build two A26-class NG submarines for the Swedish Navy. The subs are slated to be delivered in 2022. In addition, Saab also obtained an order from Sweden’s Ministry of Defense to conduct mid-life upgrades to two Gotland-class diesel-electric submarines.
Gerard O'Dwyer is the Scandinavian affairs correspondent for Defense News.