DUBAI: If the US Air Force opens up a competition to replace its aging E-3 Sentry airborne warning and control system, Swedish defense firm Saab is ready to put forward its GlobalEye plane as a potential contender, its CEO told Breaking Defense.
“Of course, I would like to be part of an open competition when it comes to airborne early warning and surveillance,” Micael Johansson said in a Nov. 14 interview during the Dubai Airshow.
The sticking point, however, is whether the Air Force decides to solicit options for an E-3 AWACS replacement or whether it opts to sole source the US-made Boeing E-7 Wedgetail as officials have hinted.
“I don’t know whether it’s really political, that they have to select US companies for that [opportunity],” said Johansson. “We will be willing to discuss partnerships, of course around that as well. But I think we have a very competitive solution.”
The GlobalEye is a modified version of the Bombardier Global 6000 business jet outfitted with Saab’s Erieye radar, which is capable of surveying about 193,000 square miles horizontally and more than 60,000 feet vertically, according to the company. So far, the United Arab Emirates is the sole customer for GlobalEye, although Sweden has also indicated its plans to purchase the aircraft.
However, the US Air Force has already indicated it could be leaning toward the E-7, which is in use by Australia and is being purchased by the UK. In October, the service indicated it would award Boeing a contract for analytical work on US-specific requirements and modifications to the Wedgetail, and Boeing expects the Air Force will announce its plans to begin buying the aircraft in 2022, a company executive said earlier this month.
Asked whether Saab is prepared to use political pressure to force the Air Force to open a competition, Johansson responded, “I don’t think so.” But he hinted that Saab lobbyists could promote the GlobalEye as a potential E-3 replacement on Capitol Hill.
“Of course, we have our organization trying to sort of work with the government officials to make sure that we can be part of it, definitely. But whether that’s possible or not in the US, I don’t know,” he said.
Johansson added that GlobalEye could also be an interim solution for NATO if its E-3 AWACS planes reach the end of their service life before a replacement capability can be fielded. In November, NATO announced that Northrop Grumman and Airbus would lead an industry team that would study potential options for replacing the E-3, such as fielding a “system of systems” that could incorporate air, space, sea and ground-based sensors, as reported by Janes.
However, if a bespoke solution isn’t available in time for the E-3’s 2035 retirement date, “There may need to be a gap filler,” Johansson said.
In the Breaking Defense interview, Johansson also discussed the company’s international sales strategy, the fate of several upcoming fighter competitions and the ongoing semiconductor shortage. The following is a translated, edited, and condensed Q&A.
You’ve spoken about wanting to increase Saab’s international footprint in the US, UK, Australia and Germany. Tell me more about your strategy.
Many people think we are a purely Swedish company. Of course, we have our legacy and background in Sweden, and we will always have the big organization — engineering wise — in Sweden. However, we have 70% to 75% [in international sales] depending on the year you look at our business.
[In] a few selected countries, we’ve prepared to set up shop with more complete operations. Not only sales offices, but actually investing in R&D and intellectual property rights and products in other countries where we feel that we can add value to defense capabilities and find the gaps with our technology.
Where do you see those gaps?
It’s different in different countries. So in the US, we have managed in a very good partnership with Boeing [on the T-7 trainer] to leverage on the digital way of developing an aircraft in terms of what we call model-based design and model-based systems engineering. That’s sort of an example of a capability we have that we transferred into this program
Sensors are another thing in the US where we have certain technologies and certain types of sensors that other competitors don’t have in the US .
But also we are a partnership oriented company. We don’t only go in and try to be running everything we do. We have relations with Boeing, we have relations with Northrop Grumman on the [AN/TPS-80 G/ATOR radar] system, for example, we have good relationships with Raytheon. So, we try not to step on too many toes.
Are there specific opportunities in the US where Saab hopes to compete?
I think there are a number of sensor-related acquisition programs, both in their traffic management side but also, on the defense side, where we see the potential [for sales].
[There’s also the US Army’s] individual assault munition program where they’re trying to consolidate four different types of ground combat type of weapons into one capability. We hope to prime that going forward. If we win that, we’ll set up some kind of manufacturing capability in the US.
There are a lot of political elements to defense industrial cooperation. This year in the US, we’ve seen the Trump administration transition power to the Biden administration. There are a lot of big sixth-generation fighter projects going on inside Europe that require sustained funding from the participating countries. And of course, there’s been the withdrawal from Afghanistan. Do you think any of those factors could influence a wave of pro-European defense spending?
That’s a good question. Of course, it’s good if European countries grow their defense capabilities up to support NATO. That would be good for NATO. But the transatlantic link and the global approach, I highly value, and I really hope that European links to the US and Australia and certain countries in Asia will still remain. That will be the way to be competitive.
We have an extremely good relationship with the US. We are doing lots of things in the US. So strategic autonomy and all that has been discussed in European Union — it’s difficult to understand what we mean by that. If that means that, “Okay, let’s be completely independent, we cannot work with the US,” that’s not really something I support.
But I do support that the European countries strengthening their defense game.
Saab’s Gripen E is a competitor in the ongoing Finnish and Canadian fighter competitions. When do you hear that a winner will be announced, and how confident do you feel that the Gripen will be chosen?
Finland will decide before Christmas. That’s what they have told us. So I think they are right now in the latest phase of evaluation. Which way it goes, I can’t say. They are extremely professional in the way they manage this both when it comes to the evaluation and how they keep things close to the chest.
[With] Canada, the last thing I heard is it will probably come to a conclusion between Q1 and Q2 next year. They have a completely different process in terms of how they do this, but they are also very professional, and they keep it also very quiet.
Looking forward, where do you see further opportunities to sell more Gripens?
I think [existing Gripen E customer] Brazil is very important to us in terms of another batch of aircraft, which I think they will start to discuss now.
Colombia is another player [that could buy Gripen E]. They have to replace their existing fleet and we are in discussions with them.
Then on the [Gripen C/D] version, Hungary is in the phase of discussing prolongation of the Gripen and maybe adding a few aircraft. In the Czech Republic, you have the same thing. There are one or two countries in Asia that are looking up their requirements, like the Philippines and Thailand.
Is the semiconductor shortage impacting Saab at all?
Right now? Not really.
For new businesses lead times may be affected. Future programs are trying to mitigate that. But it’s not right here and now. It’s more [a problem] in three year’s time, so we’re working on that like any other company, trying to sort of find new ways forward.