New flight path
Sweden makes a case for its innovative Gripen fighters to prospective Asian buyers facing new security challenges.
6 Jun 2016 at 04:30
Swedish Defence Minister Peter Hultqvist, flanked by Gripen test pilots, attends a presentation of the new E version of the JAS 39 Gripen fighter jet at the Saab headquarters in Linkoping.
Thailand and many other countries in Asia are looking to upgrade their defence capabilities, with the sharp increase in defence budgets over the past decade attesting to greater economic strength as well as rising geopolitical tensions.
The trend has defence contractors in many western countries vying for a piece of a very big cake, and some companies are offering innovative means to lure new customers.
The Swedish aerospace and industrial group Saab, which has been manufacturing aircraft for more than eight decades, is looking at the emerging markets of Asia such as Thailand, Malaysia, India and others to provide some of its state-of-the art fighter jets including its new Gripen E “Smart Fighter”.
The sixth generation of the Gripen family, the jet is an upgrade to the Gripen C/D that is used by Thailand, the only country in the region with the Swedish planes in its fleet.
Thailand has acquired 12 Gripen C/D single-engine fighter jets since 2008 at a cost of nearly US$70 million apiece. They can be upgraded with some of the technological innovations that come with the newly developed Gripen E.
“It is a milestone for any CEO to be able to roll out a new fighter jet in a record time of just three years,” Saab CEO Hakan Buskhe told a group of Thai media representatives who recently visited the production site in Linkoping, 200 kilometres south of Stockholm.
He said that countries such as Thailand, South Africa and Brazil that have taken delivery of the Gripen C/D would benefit from the development of the Gripen E, which has higher capabilities than its predecessors. Although many of the new features such as larger fuel capacity and radar systems cannot be retrofitted on the older models, the arms and computer systems can be upgraded. No cost has been put on the possible upgrades yet.
The Gripen E is expected to make its maiden flight around the end of this year. Company executives are proceeding cautiously as they want to avoid the mishaps that overshadowed the launch of the C/D models nearly a decade ago.
Lennart Sindahl, deputy CEO of Saab, says Saab is preparing to make innovative offers, including a leasing programme, for its Gripen jets.
Mr Buskhe said the aim was to make the delivery time for the new aircraft as short as possible, probably around 18 months, once it has passed all tests. That would be far shorter than the norm for many fighter aircraft manufacturers. During the Cold War, he said, lag time for deliveries was as long as six years and some suppliers lost opportunities as a result.
Asia, according to deputy CEO Lennart Sindahl, will be a big driver of growth for Saab, which now derives 17% of its overall revenues from the region.
Asian nations have been on a spending spree to acquire armaments amid rising tensions in the South China Sea and the growing threat from rogue countries such as North Korea.
According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (Sipri), military spending in Asia and Oceania rose last year by 5.4%, and over the past decade (2006-15) it rose by a staggering 64% to $436 billion.
Nearly half of the defence spending in the region last year was from China which spent $215 billion, four times more than second-ranked India.
Sipri said in a report issued in April that the countries with the lowest spending — Afghanistan, Singapore and New Zealand — recorded 9% growth compared with China and Indonesia which saw their spending grow by 132% and 150% respectively. India spent $51.3 billion, an increase of just 0.4% year-on-year, although it plans to raise spending by as much as 8% this year.
China’s increasing assertiveness, Sipri said, was the factor that drove many Asian countries to increase their spending with Philippines, Vietnam and Indonesia all looking to bolster their arsenals.
As part of the effort to persuade countries in the region to buy Swedish-made Gripen aircraft, Mr Sindahl said Saab was willing to make innovative offers, including the option of leasing fighter jets. One such offer is reported to have been made Malaysia for Gripen C/D jets.
Countries all over the world have been complaining about the rising cost of procurement of military equipment, as the cost of each new aircraft that is rolled out tends to rise exponentially in line with the technology that is used.
One of the biggest supporters of the Gripen E is the Swedish air force, which plans to gradually replace its Gripen C/D models with the new E series in the near future.
“The Gripen E will become operational by 2020 and it would allow us to meet the challenges ahead while meeting the new requirements as well,” Swedish Defence Minister Peter Hultqvist said during the unveiling of the new fighter.
Sweden has not been at war for more than a century but during the Cold War it had one of the world’s largest fighter jet fleets of more than 1,000 aircraft. Lately it has been raising its budget spending on defence amid rising tensions in the region, owing mainly to Russia’s growing might.
“From the Russian side we see large-scale military exercises, snap exercises and provocative behaviour around our borders, we need to improve our capacity to meet the new security demands and technological achievements of our opponents. The introduction of the Gripen E is a vital part of this,” Mr Hultqvist said.
His words were echoed by the chief of staff of the Swedish Royal Air Force, Mats Helgesson, who said the new Gripen would give Sweden a technological edge in the event of a confrontation with Russia.
“We forecast that we will have the capability to operate in a future contested environment with increased range and endurance, better communications and better radar, electronic warfare systems and an increased range for our weapons,” he said.
Saab Gripen E: Details
Saab Gripen C/D: Details