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May 31, 2019 | Local, Aerospace

In pursuit of $19B contract, Sweden's Saab offers to build fleet of fighter jets in Canada

David Pugliese, Ottawa Citizen

Saab's offer further ups the ante on the competition that will see the federal government purchase 88 new aircraft

A Swedish aerospace firm that hopes to supply Canada’s new fleet of fighter jets says it could build the aircraft in this country, making maximum use of the expertise of domestic firms and creating high-tech jobs.

Saab’s pitch to build its Gripen E fighter jet in Canada further ups the ante on the $19-billion competition that will see the federal government purchase 88 new aircraft.

The Liberal government has been emphasizing the transfer of new technology and expertise to Canadian aerospace firms as well as the creation of high-tech jobs as among its key goals for the fighter jet program.

Another European firm, Airbus, has hinted it could also build its Typhoon fighters in Canada, but Saab said if the federal government wants the planes built on a domestic production line its commitment is solid.

For the Canadian program, Saab is hoping to follow the same process that helped it win a recent fighter jet competition in Brazil. The first batch of Gripen E fighter jets are being built in Sweden but the technology is then being transferred to Brazilian firms so they can assemble the remaining aircraft.

Certainly if that is what the customer values for Canada that is something that we can easily do

“We think that is the model that makes sense for Canada,” Patrick Palmer, senior vice-president of Saab Canada, told Postmedia. “We’re going down that path but we’re also looking at how the (request for proposals) is written and what the customer values. Certainly if that is what the customer values for Canada that is something that we can easily do.”

Aerospace firms have been told that the federal government will request their proposals in mid-July.

The fighter jet competition was launched on Dec. 12, 2017 and at this point four aircraft are to be considered. Those include the F-35, the Super Hornet, the Eurofighter Typhoon and the Gripen.

The Gripen E is the newest of the fighter jets being offered to Canada. The first Gripen E for the Swedish military is expected to be delivered later this year. The first of the 36 aircraft ordered by Brazil in a $5-billion program will be delivered in 2021.

The first delivery of jets for the Canadian program is expected in the mid-2020s with the full capability available in the early 2030s, according to documents produced by the Department of National Defence.

The issue of industrial benefits for Canadian companies will have a high profile in the competition.

In early May the Canadian government told potential bidders it was making changes to its fighter jet competition to allow the U.S. to enter the F-35 stealth fighter.

The changes, which industry sources say allow for a more flexible approach in determining the value of industrial benefits for the competition, came after a series of discussions with the U.S. government and threats by the Pentagon to withdraw the F-35 from consideration.

Canada is a partner nation in the development of Lockheed Martin’s F-35, and U.S. officials had warned that the agreement Canada had signed prohibits partners from imposing requirements for industrial benefits as firms from those nations compete for work on the jets. Over the last 12 years, Canadian firms have earned more than $1.3 billion in contracts to build F-35 parts.

Per Alriksson of Saab Aeronautics said the Gripen is designed specifically for operations in the Arctic, giving it a leg up on other planes. “Sweden has air force bases in what you call the far North,” he added. “We operate there daily. (The Gripen) has Arctic DNA built into it.”

Alriksson said the Gripen E can operate from remote airfields in the north, landing and taking off on runways less than 800 metres in length. It has a quick turnaround time for missions, with technicians able to reload and refuel the planes in 10 minutes. “It is pretty good in operating in dispersed locations as you have in Canada,” he added.

Alriksson said the company can integrate U.S. and other equipment on the Gripen E so it is interoperable with American forces, another consideration for Canada. “Moving forward with the Gripen E, we see no problem whatsoever to integrate that fighter into a NORAD context.”