Analysis: Why 2009 could be the year of the Gripen
The next 18 months will see Brazil, Croatia, Denmark, India, the Netherlands, Norway, Romania and Switzerland make final selections for their respective fighter procurement competitions, with sales of up to 523 aircraft worth at least USD35 billion-USD40 billion at stake.
It will be a truly crucial period in shaping the future of the global fighter market.
The common link between these eight contests is the presence of the Saab Gripen in the bidding process. So far the Gripen's success in the export market has been limited, with contracts for 60 aircraft in place across the Czech Republic (14), Hungary (14), South Africa (26) and Thailand (6). Saab hopes, and Jane's Defence Forecasts believes, that the next 18 months may see this number increase significantly.
Competition is fierce to fill these eight national requirements, with the following among the Gripen's competitors in the various contests: Boeing's F/A-18E/F Super Hornet; Dassault's Rafale; the Eurofighter Typhoon; Lockheed Martin's F-16 Fighting Falcon and F-35 Lightning II; and RAC MiG's MiG-35.
Jane's believes the Gripen team has reasons for optimism, however.
First of all, in terms of the aircraft's capability, Saab is offering its enhanced Gripen NG (Next Generation) variant for the Brazilian, Danish, Dutch, Indian and Norwegian requirements, which incorporates a number of significant improvements over the baseline Gripen C/D. These enhancements include: an active electronically scanned array radar developed in conjunctionwith Thales (due to begin flight testing in 2009); General Electric F-414G engines, which provide increased thrust and maximum take-off weight; additional weapons stores; enhanced avionics and electronic warfare capabilities; and increased range.
These new capabilities are currently being developed through the Gripen Demonstrator programme, which was approved by Sweden's Defence Materiel Administration (FMV) in October 2007 and unveiled the following April. According to Saab, further enhancements will be rolled out in three-year increments, to enable continuous development of the platform over the life of the programme and removing the need for comprehensive and expensive mid-life upgrade programmes. Development and incorporation of specific customer-funded requirements is also envisaged as part of a 50-year programme plan.
While currently in the developmental stage, the Gripen NG programme would be accelerated in the event of a contract win and the aircraft would be available to enter service from 2014.
With regard to cost, the Gripen NG is viewed by Jane's as competitive in terms of both acquisition and through-life support costs when compared to its rivals. Bob Kemp, sales and marketing director for Gripen International, citing figures produced for the Dutch fighter contest, said Saab believes that the Gripen NG, as part of an 85-aircraft fleet, would cost EUR6 billion (USD7.6 billion) less than the F-35 in terms of life-cycle costs over a 30-year period.
At a unit cost of between USD50 million andUSD60 million, the Gripen also offers the lowest-cost platform in terms of acquisition expenditure. By comparison, according to Fiscal Year 2009 US Air Force (USAF) and US Navy (USN) budgetary documentation, the unit costs of the F-35 and F/A-18E/F are USD83.1 million and USD82.7 million respectively.
Unsurprisingly in such a competitive market, each of the contenders in these fighter contests has its strengths and weaknesses and much will depend on the specific circumstances, priorities and requirements of the customer nations. As such, some contests are better suited to the Gripen proposal than others, particularly in Europe.
Image: The Gripen NG programme is currently in the developmental stage (Gripen International)
Source: 06 November 2008 - Jane's Information Group - By Craig Caffrey