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Saab Group is confident that its single-engine Gripen E remains a viable contender for Canada’s next generation fighter aircraft fleet, even though there are currently no immediate plans for Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) pilots to actually fly the aircraft.
This was according to Richard Smith, head of Gripen marketing and sales during a May 16 briefing on Gripen market opportunities worldwide.
He confirmed the planned visits included “site surveys and also some more senior visits as well, but at the moment, no plans for a flight evaluation.”
He offered no details on who specifically would be visiting, but welcomed a suggestion that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau could be on the list.
Canada is one of a number of countries Saab is targeting as a customer for the Mach 2 delta wing/canard fighter, the first variation of which entered service with the Swedish Air Force in 1997.
Development of the Gripen E, featuring a General Electric F414G engine and an upgraded electronic warfare system (EWS), began about 2014 and it was first flown in June 2017. It is now said to be on track for delivery to the Swedish and Brazilian air forces.
Smith said he expected that “continued dialogue so far this year” with Canadian government representatives was setting the stage for an early draft proposal, possibly in the third quarter of 2018, followed by the government’s request for proposal for 80 aircraft early next year.
He said the Gripen is suitable for all RCAF operations, including the high north, the Arctic and forward operating bases, which he said are “very similar to what we have in Sweden.”
He later added that Saab would “tailor” its offering to Canada, as it would to other prospective customers with different operating environments.
“Value for money, the industrial packages, that’s what makes the Gripen rather unique and rather attractive.”
On the seminal Canadian question about the reliability of a single-engine aircraft in Arctic and maritime missions, Gripen test pilot Mikhal Olsson said it had never been an issue.
“I’ve been flying fighter aircraft since 1996 and I’ve been stationed . . . up in the Arctic,” he said.
“I’ve been flying over the Atlantic, I’ve been flying across the sea eastbound to India (Saab is proposing the Gripen for the India Air Force), and every time I’ve been in a single-engine jet. I’ve never, ever, been worried about the engine [due to built-in redundancies]. “We have a really reliable system.”
Olsson also said that as a “smart fighter” with net-centric technologies, a new sensor suite and long-range weapons, the E model is tailored to an “much more hostile and . . . much more unpredictable” operational environment where “new conflicts arise and disappear much quicker that we’ve seen before.”
Gripen EWS sales director Inga Bergstrom added that electronic warfare was not the aircraft’s primary function.
Rather, EWS was “an enabler to . . . a successful mission” and because it was upgradeable software, it could deal with evolving threats.
Asked about having to compete in some markets with used aircraft, Smith said these were, at best, an interim solution.
“We’re going to operate it for 30 to 40 years,” he replied. “Second-hand fighters . . . need to be replaced after maybe 10 years, and the capability that we bring is somewhat different to those old fighters. . . . Even though there has been, as you say, some headwind recently, I remain very optimistic about the outlook for Gripen both short term and longer term.”
Jonas Hjelm, head of Aeronautics at Saab, acknowledged that although the company can’t compete with used fighters because of the price difference, he agreed that the upgradeable Gripen could be operated for potentially more than 40 years without having to go through a new acquisition process, so the total package “makes sense for very many of the countries that are now in process of actually selecting a new fighter system.”
Asked how the Gripen could compete with “stealth” platforms, Hjelm declined comment on competitors’ aircraft but conceded that it was a difficult challenge.
Calling stealth a “fashion word,” he said that while the newest Gripen variants have “stealth features,” Saab has chosen “different paths to have a low signature.”
Besides, with “every smart technique you come up with to defend yourself, there will be a pushback from the other side to detect you . . . . We continue all the time to see what we can develop . . . to become more invisible.”