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Future Fighter and Gripen E potential

The industrial and technical benefits of Saab’s JAS 39 Gripen E Bid for Canada

April 29, 2021  By Wings Staff

The swing-role Gripen E features supercruise efficiency for customers with wider territories to secure. (Photo: Saab)

The delta wing design of the Saab JAS 39 Gripen E opens strong emotional ties to the supersonic structure of Canada’s pioneering Avro CF-105 Arrow, designed for Cold War air power. Without ever entering service, but before program termination in 1959, CF-105 test aircraft were rated for speeds of up to 2,324 kilometres per hour (km/h), obliterating minimum supersonic levels defined by the speed of sound at sea-level pressure, 1,236 km/h. A year after Canada cancelled the Avro Arrow program, Saab of Sweden introduced into service its 35 Draken – the Dragon – with a double delta wing design (first flying in 1955), which would become Western Europe’s first fully supersonic aircraft, rated for a top speed of 2,125 km/h.

Canadian nostalgia for delta wings will not determine the success or failure of Saab’s Gripen E bid in Canada’s Future Fighter Capability Project (FFCP) competition, but the design serves as a visualization of important differences between the three fighter jets still in the hunt. The competition to replace the Royal Canadian Air Force’s (RCAF) ageing fleet of CF-188 Hornet’s with 88 new-generation fighters also includes the Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet (Block III) and Lockheed Martin F-35A Lightning II.

In an April report by Lee Berthiaume of The Canadian Press, Canada’s top military procurement official Troy Crosby indicated the federal government is still on track to choose the winning fighter in 2022. This would maintain the government’s most recently updated delivery timeline (reaffirmed in early 2020) to have the first fighter jet arrive in 2025 and the last one by 2032. Despite the government’s current determination to complete the FFCP process, it has suffered from years of delays resulting in Ottawa’s 2019 commitment to extend the life of the RCAF’s current 76 CF-18s through avionics and systems upgrades, in addition to adding a previously announced 18 Australian F/A-18s – with 15 of 18 already delivered, according to The Canadian Press, and three now in service. Crosby told Berthiaume the total cost of this Hornet upgrade plan is expected to cost about $1.3 billion.

If Canada can keep to the current FFCP timeline, however, it would provide welcome investment across the domestic aerospace sector, as the winning bid must provide equal value of the fighter contract in Industrial and Technological Benefits (ITB) to the country. Canada’s Future Fighter evaluation is 20 per cent based on economic benefits, 60 per cent on technical merit, and 20 per cent on cost. The dollar-for-dollar investment could be anywhere from $15 to $19 billion based on the price of 88 fighters and specified training.


All three of the fighter jet competitors, Saab, Boeing and Lockheed Martin, have an existing presence in Canada (particularly the latter two), but the FFCP would set massive infrastructure investments into motion regardless of which company wins. In January 2021, Saab outlined key parts of its ITB plan, which would include establishing a new facility called the Saab Sensor Centre in Vancouver, BC, to focus on sensor technologies like radar. One of its proposed projects would be to develop a Space Surveillance Radar (SSR) in Canada, in cooperation with other Canadian companies and ultimately targeting a global surface radar market.

Saab’s ITB proposal within its FFCP bid also includes developing another two proposed Saab centres, which would be known separately as the Gripen Centre and the Aerospace Research & Development Centre, co-located in Greater Montreal. The Gripen Centre would be the E-Series’ ITB centerpiece, primarily staffed by members of the Gripen for Canada Team, working to ensure the fighter platform meets Canada’s NORAD and NATO requirements – another key piece of Canada’s overall Strong, Secure, Engaged defence investment policy into which FFCP fits.

The Saab Aerospace R&D Centre would serve as a focal point over decades for developing innovations to test and produce next-generation aerospace systems and components, which, according to Saab, might include unmanned aerial systems, artificial intelligence, and environmentally progressive aviation technologies.

Saab’s initial Gripen for Canada Team members include IMP Aerospace & Defence, CAE, Peraton Canada and GE Aviation. Saab explains IMP Aerospace & Defence would contribute with in-country production and in-service support for the life of the Canadian Gripen fleet. CAE would provide training and mission systems solutions. Peraton Canada would provide avionic and test equipment component maintenance, repair and overhaul, and material management. GE Aviation would provide and help sustain the fighter’s F414-39E engines in Canada.

Saab in April 2021 added StandardAero to the Gripen for Canada Team to serve as an in-country sustainment partner to support the GE F414 engine with MRO services. StandardAero has decades of experience serving RCAF aircraft engines, including propulsion sustainment for the T56 engines powering CC-130 Hercules and CP-140 Aurora aircraft. The new Gripen agreement focuses on providing MRO services out of StandardAero’s 665,000-square-foot campus in Winnipeg, Manitoba, where the company has continuously operated since 1911. StandardAero explains the deal could add a new military engine line in Winnipeg, while also supporting development for other F414 fleets, as well as work at its other Canadian facilities in BC and PEI.

StandardAero also brings a long-term partnership with GE. In February of 2012, the two companies opened a $50 million aircraft engine Testing, Research and Development Centre (TRDC) in Winnipeg. The centre was specifically designed to perform icing certification testing on GE’s jet engines, as well as to develop advanced testing methodologies and equipment for GE Aviation’s commercial and military aircraft engines. The 122,500-square-foot facility is located at James A. Richardson International Airport.

GE designed and built the TRDC and, under a long-term contract, StandardAero maintains and operates the certification test centre, which can test gas turbine engines of up to 150 inches in diameter and with up to 150,000 pounds of thrust, as well as holding capabilities to accommodate high performance military engines.

The GE F414 engine, working in concert with a flight control system that is constantly trimming the Gripen E for the least drag, provides the aircraft with up to 22,000 pounds of thrust, as well as a 40 per cent greater internal fuel capacity relative to previous Gripen C/D models. The performance improvement allows for Gripen E’s supercruise mode, which means flying supersonic without using the afterburner. This is an attractive option for customers with wider territories to secure, such as Brazil, which ordered 36 Gripens through a development contract with Embraer (focusing on the two-seat Gripen F version), and Canada. The ice and snow coastlines of Sweden, which has ordered 60 new generation Gripens, also provides an attractive comparable for Canada.

Saab explains the Gripen was designed to operate and be serviceable in dispersed bases which require short take-off and landing (STOL) capabilities. The company states this maintenance advantage reflects the overall lifecycle cost – and ultimately cost per flight hour – of the relatively small-sized but efficient Gripen, which is known to hold low operating costs relative to other modern platforms. Lifecycle costs, however, will ultimately depend on a platform’s global fleet size and subsequent support network, which also relates to ITB work potential.

Without delving too deep into specs, Saab points to the Gripen E’s upgradable firmware, being one of the newest platforms in production, with certification testing continuing in both Sweden and Brazil, as well as its fly-by-wire flight controls, and Electric Warfare capabilities with critical components surrounding the aircraft, including on its wing tips and fin, for aggressive, passive engagement. Saab also points to the Gripen’s AESA radar and IRST (infrared search and track), and Beyond Visual Range combat enabled by the availability of a MBDA Meteor missile. The aircraft has 10 hardpoints with a combat turnaround of 10 minutes. It is available for air-to-air refueling.

Saab promotes the Gripen E as a true swing-role fighter, which speaks to its ability to quickly change roles potentially even during a single mission. The other two FFCP fighter jet competitors hold similar multi-role definitions, which also fits Canada’s existing CF-18 combat model. The three aircraft, however, do present significant differences illustrated by with the delta-wing canard design of the Gripen E; conventionally designed – albeit with an delta-like structure comprising the fuselage above the wing base into the cockpit – Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet; and the stealth structured fusion of the F-35A Lightning II. 

The older delta-wing designs of the Avro Arrow and 35 Draken were built for straight-out interceptor speed, struggling with subsonic handling, but the Gripen E’s design is based on the 1980s introduction of Relaxed Artificial Stability (RAS), reducing drag trim to near zero and providing advanced aerodynamic maneuverability. The Super Hornet is also built around RAS and holds more traditional fighter jet maneuverability, whereas the F-35A is designed for stealth and fleet combat interoperability. The government will need to evaluate these costs and capabilities by the end of this year to meet its 2022 award timeline, ultimately pegged to decades of Canada’s economy and future fighter. |


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