Interview article

Gripen Fighters
PETER PIGOTT  |  Jan 15, 2009

With the last of the Cold War fighters like the CF18 reaching the end of their useful lives, the global competition is heating up for the next generation of fighters. The Eurofighter Typhoon, the Dassault Rafale, the Saab Gripen NG and the Lockheed Martin JSF are all on the table. Canada has not committed itself to the purchase of any of the above. Better known for its ­precision built cars like Volvo, innovative furniture from IKEA and great hockey players, Sweden does not come to mind as a manufacturer of fighter aircraft.

To correct that impression, aviation journalist Peter Pigott interviewed Tony Ogilivy, Vice President for Saab\ Gripen International Marketing. A former Royal Navy operational front line pilot with Strike/Attack and Air Defence fighter squadrons, he flew the Buccaneer, Hunter and Sea Harrier. Having seen combat (Aden, Falklands), Tony had completed five carrier tours on HMS Eagle, Ark Royal, Invincible, and Illustrious before retirement from the navy. Now on long term loan from BAE Systems to Saab Aerospace (BAE owns 20% of Saab Aero), he is based at Saab HQ, Linköping, Sweden and in the UK.

Tony, historically, Saab relied on the domestic market to take up its fighters – and was never an exporter. Without such market experience, and as an unknown quantity on the world stage, how will the company handle the export market?

Since Gripen entered the export market, Saab has captured the bulk of the competitions fought. To date, it has been sold to four foreign countries: Thailand, South Africa, Hungary and the Czech Republic. In Thailand, Gripen beat the Su30 and F16 in a straight fight, and the Government of Thailand has produced a public domain document spelling out exactly why they selected Gripen over two other contenders.

This year, Saab has answered RFIs from six different countries. In one of these, Brazil, Gripen has been short-listed with Rafale and the F18 E/F while Typhoon, the F16 and Sukhoi were de-selected. In all of the six ongoing tenders, the new Gripen NG has added more power, more range and weapons and an AESA radar to all the merits of the current version of Gripen. Key to the move to the next generation aircraft, is that Saab will ensure that all new technology is backward compatible. It is clear that the Saab Gripen has now taken the pole position in the export market.

What does the Saab bring to Canada that the other aircraft manufacturers don’t?

The Gripen NG, built by Saab and backed in full by the Government of Sweden over the life of the aircraft, will offer the Canadian Air Force a proven latest generation fighter that will meet or exceed all known requirements in all roles, at minimum cost to the country. Gripen is designed to provide commanders in the field with a highly responsive and very powerful multi-role fighter, offering availability of fully operating systems, in all weathers and all ­operational conditions.

Tony, you’ve headed some important sales missions around the world – India, Greece and Switzerland are potential customers. As a former fighter pilot, you obviously know aircraft. What advantages do you see for Canada if it buys into the Gripen program?

Canada will not be restricted to the single source weapon supply that accompanies an American or French fighter. Gripen will provide the latest avionics and software suites through co-development work with the Canadian aerospace industry, to ensure that the air force gets the fighter it wants now and for the next 40 years. Swedish technology in mission critical areas will ensure that Canada has full control over all key software, including vital source codes in elements such as Electronic Warfare. Weapon supply is critical to the acquisition of fighter aircraft. Primary and secondary weapons and pods, in all roles, can be provided and integrated from any supplier, if they can physically be carried on the aircraft. Designed-in digital health and usage monitoring of all key components allows for minimum spares holdings for Operational (O) and Intermediate (I) level maintenance, maintenance carried out on demand not time.

Our proven philosophy of rolling technology insertion programs ensures no more vastly expensive mid-life updates suddenly removing half your fleet for a $1B upgrade program just to maintain your position in the supply chain queue. Saab has ensured that export customers will get exactly what they require, at minimum cost, and with cast-iron guarantees to back up what they say. Industrial cooperation programs will deliver the highest level of technology transfer to allow Canadian national aerospace industries to tap into Saab’s 70 years of engineering and manufacturing experience and excellence.

What degree of industrial benefits would Saab offer? We have a sophisticated ­aviation industry here. Could for example, the Gripen be built here? Would there be there a technology transfer option?

Bombardier can manufacture Gripen in-country should that be a government requirement. Saab, in partnership, would set up an in-county maintenance and repair facility to meet depot level needs, and further transfer vital technologies to Canada. Gripen NG can offer all of this, with guarantees, and with no excess political baggage. Maximum capability, minimum cost, no political baggage.

Canada is a vast, mostly uninhabited, harshly cold country. Range and endurance are vital. The Gripen (in its present version) has limited range and doesn't have air to air refueling probes. One of the main reasons the CF18 was chosen over the F16 was its twin engines. How does Saab plan to market a single engined a/c?

Since entering the export market with the current C (single seat) and D (two seat) variants, all Gripen are fully equipped with a retractable in-flight re-fueling probe. Saab realized that some countries required greater range and endurance than that offered by the C variant, which led to the concept of the Gripen NG. The NG has 40% more internal fuel capacity than the current C version, with an unrefuelled ferry range of 2200 nautical miles. This is further than all of the competition, bar none. The single vs twin engined debate has been firmly put to bed with the advent of engines possessed now of exceptional and proven reliability. Gripen aircraft have accrued over 120,000 hours of flight time without a single failure. The main issue of whether to have one engine or two in these days of tight budgets is money. That is a simple equation: two engines = twice the cost.

Canada has always bought from the U.S. – in fact, the last British fighter it bought was the Vampire in the 1950s – and it has never bought French or Soviet. How does Saab, an unknown a/c manufacturer to Canadians, plan to break into such a legacy market?

Sweden, Saab and Gripen will show the Canadian authorities that the NG aircraft will meet all of the very demanding require­ments of the Canadian Air Force, at minimum cost to the nation. These costs will be transparently compared on a like for like basis against the competition to show precisely how much Canada will save in real terms in acquisition and operation costs over life. Additionally, the NG will have minimum impact on established infrastructure that supports the current F18 fleet. Saab may, at the moment, be little known in Canada, but that can be addressed very simply by taking Canadian officials from all relevant authorities to Sweden and letting them see for themselves exactly what we can do for them. Armed with this knowledge, they can then place Saab in the right context in a competitive sense. Canada already has a very clear sense of the quality and efficiency of Swedish products through many ongoing defence and non-defence contracts between the two countries. Sweden brings no political baggage to the table and is a highly respected, reliable and steadfast partner nation.

For the Gripen NG, Saab went to GE for its F414 engine, the latest version of what is powering the F/A18E/F right now. Would Canada simply be getting the same engines that are in its CF18s right now?

Saab and GE have a long and very successful history of collaboration in the Gripen program. With an increase in dry weight of one tonne, the NG fighter requires more thrust than the current GE404 based RM 12 engine. To meet this new requirement, and provide continuity with a highly regarded U.S. partner in GE, Saab has selected the finest engine in production today, the GE414, to provide for the NG.

I understand that the NG will not be flying until 2014 – not even its Demonstrator version will have all components (radar, etc). The older versions used by the Swedish Air Force are not the NG; for one thing, its main landing gear will be relocated, and the outer shape has to change to allow for the extra fuel. The Gripen's chief competitor, the JSF, is already flying. Would Canada be buying an unknown a/c?

Changes made to the current Gripen variant, in the move up to NG, are straightforward engineering alterations to the landing gear and immediate surround. This explains the short interval (19 months) from initial idea to first flight. The Demo program is a proof of concept of what Saab is aiming at with the next generation fighter, split into two distinct phases. The current and first phase, running from April 2008 for 12 months to prove flight regimes and general systems, is firmly on track. After a short layup, the aircraft will commence avionic and equipment testing to prove the new mission systems entering service with the NG. All of the planned changes are ­categorized as low risk and the program has borne this out to date.

Lockheed Martin and EADS are giants in the aviation world. Realistically, is Saab capable of such an ambitious program?

Saab is probably the best aerospace company in the world at rapid prototyping, and risk reduction programs. This is due to two simple facts. Over its 70 years, Saab has amassed a vast pool of experience in building high performance fighter aircraft. There is no shortcut to achieving these levels of expertise. There is no question that NG will come in on time and on budget.

Norway has just cancelled its Gripen order saying that the JSF was cheaper. That must have been a blow for Saab. Can you comment on this?

The Norwegians cancelled nothing. They selected JSF over Gripen NG on purely political grounds, and the resultant expressions of surprise from professionals around the globe is clearly audible. Swedish and Norwegian officials are currently meeting to discuss the issue. However, one quote you might like from Bob Kemp, Gripen International Senior Vice President International Sales and Marketing is: “If we developed and produced 48 Gripen NG and gave them to Norway, we would still be more expensive than JSF according to Norwegian calculations.”

Given the worldwide recession, nations are very price sensitive right now. What is Saab doing to meet this?

You are absolutely right. Cost is becoming a dominant issue in the down-selection criteria. On the question of price, I can assure you that the Gripen NG will be significantly lower than JSF, and all other competitors, when pricing is done in a transparent and like for like basis. We welcome the chance to prove this in an open forum. What will it cost, for example, to provide fuel, all consumables, all O and I level maintenance (including labour), and Depot level work (excluding labour, as national rates vary to such an extent that this variable is omitted) to operate JSF for one flight hour? Or an F/A18 EF?

We know what the other fighters cost to operate from public domain sources, and I can tell you the nearest competitor, a single engined aircraft, costs over twice as much to run per hour. For the larger twin engined aircraft, the costs are three of four times as much as the Gripen.

When it comes to cost and price, nations need to conduct stringent comparisons to get this bottom line set of numbers. Saab/Gripen will be delighted to participate and assist in this vital endeavor with our well-proven software models.

With 14 books on the subject, Peter Pigott is Canada’s most prolific aviation author. He has authored two military works “Canada in Afghanistan: The War So Far” and “Canada in Sudan: War Without Borders.”
© FrontLine Defence 2009