Editor’s Note: No one disputes the fact that Canada needs to procure new fighters, but that’s where universal agreement ends. Several aircraft types are competing to be Canada’s next fighter jet. In this ongoing series, defence analyst Richard Shimooka examines the pros and cons of each contender. In this installment: the Eurofighter Typhoon and the Saab Gripen.
Eurofighter (Tranche III)
The Eurofighter Typhoon is a multinational fighter program between the United Kingdom, Germany, Spain and Italy. It was originally conceived in the early 1980s to provide West European states with a new air superiority fighter. However, the project was plagued by serious delays and cost overruns during its development, only entering service in 2002. Part of the issue was managing a massive multinational project with a highly defined work share agreement. Currently, the Typhoon is in service with the four partner nations, and won export orders to Austria (2002), Saudi Arabia (2006) and Oman (2012). In total, 559 will be delivered by the current projected end of production, sometime after 2017. Each partner nation possesses a production line, but a Canadian purchase would likely be supplied by BAE Systems’ facility in Warton, UK.
Capability and Performance
Of all the fighter options likely to be considered by the RCAF, the Eurofighter offers the best overall aerodynamic performance. This was due to the aircraft’s original design requirements. By 1980, the Soviet Union had fielded a new range of fighter aircraft, including the Mig-23, Su-27 and Mig-29. These agile supersonic aircraft and their expected successors were greeted with alarm by European air forces, as they feared they could wrest air dominance from the current generation of western fighters.
In response, the Eurofighter was designed with phenomenal aerodynamic capabilities, including exceptional range, top speed, and maneuverability. Limited consideration was given to air-to-ground capabilities, at least for the initial operating versions. Instead, the Typhoon excelled in two areas: high altitude supersonic regimes for launching long-range missiles, and transonic maneuverability for close-range combat. Its operational range for a long-range northern intercept is likely in excess of 750 nautical miles (nm) based on figures given to the Norwegian government. To achieve this performance, the Eurofighter utilized a somewhat novel delta-canard wing that provided very high levels of agility and lift. Furthermore the aircraft was constructed with a then-unprecedented level of composite materials, which reduced its overall weight. Approximately 40 per cent of the aircraft’s structural weight was made up by composites, compared to 20 to 25 per cent for most contemporary fighters. Finally, the Eurofighter utilizes the Eurojet-200 engine, a powerful high-bypass turbofan developed by the partner states. These aerodynamic advantages were supplemented by its advanced avionics suite, which would allow it to operate in the then-existing high threat environment. It is highly ergonomic and possesses significant sensor fusion capabilities that provide the pilot with great situational awareness, a key advantage over most potential opponents. An example of this is the Defensive Aid Sub System, which is a collection of avionics that identifies incoming missiles, suggests pilot action and automatically deploys applicable countermeasures.
Yet, the initial design choices also had significant consequences for the fighter’s capability. Minimal consideration was given to stealth capabilities, as European states’ research into low observable technologies was in its infancy. This will constrain its ability to operate in future high threat environments against newer generations of lethal surface-to-air missiles and air superiority fighters. In addition, the aircraft’s ground strike capabilities were non-existent until recently; only a handful of RAF Typhoons were able to drop precision-guided munitions with the aid of an older Tornado fighter designating the target. A full suite of air-to-ground capabilities will be delivered with the Tranche III production lot, which should start deliveries later this year. However, even with these enhancements, questions on the Eurofighter’s effectiveness remain. A 2009 Swiss Air Force report evaluation rated the fighter as unsatisfactory for the air-to-ground strike, citing several technical deficiencies in the proposed Tranche III capability.
Of greater concern is the availability of spares for the aircraft. A 2011 UK National Audit Office report identified parts supply problems as a key factor in the unavailability of RAF aircraft for basic operations. In particular, the report stated: “Separate to these two support contracts, there are indications of problems with the collaborative contracts for the supply of spares and repair of equipment. There have been shortages of spares and long timescales for equipment repairs on some of these contracts. To compensate, the Department has had to take parts from some of its Typhoon aircraft to make other aircraft available to fly.”
These problems may become even more apparent with a Canadian purchase, since it is not a partner in the Eurofighter consortium. The physical distance between Canada and the European continent could further increase delivery times. Unless Canada would accept a lower level of availability in such a scenario, Canada will either need to purchase additional aircraft to meet its operational commitments, or make a significantly larger purchase of spares than usually required.
Contract Price and Industrial Benefits
The Eurofighter is one of the most expensive fighter aircraft available on the international market. The inherent advantages of a multinational production scheme have largely been diluted due to poor management decisions and inefficient manufacturing practices. For example, the potential for manufacturing learning on a large production line was severely reduced due to the separation of assembly to four national facilities and set workshare arrangements. Consequently, the per-unit flyaway cost is approximately C$115.5 million (in 2011), which is the highest among all of the aircraft currently under consideration. In addition, an export levy is often applied to any UK export, which may add several million dollars to the per unit price. It is unlikely Canada would be able to procure a sufficient fleet of aircraft within the government’s stated $9 billion acquisition cap.
The Typhoon’s operational cost is similarly high. In 2011, the UK Ministry of Defence (MoD) stated the per-flying hour cost of the Eurofighter as approximately C$110,000. Due to differing accounting practices, this figure is not directly comparable to American figures, and MoD officials have suggested it will decline over the next decade. Nevertheless, other partner states have similarly noted the Eurofighter’s high cost, including Germany, where it was double the original estimates.
The domestic industrial offset opportunities are likely to be in line with other defence procurements, but with significant limits. First, the fixed collaborative workshare arrangement among the Eurofighter partners and the aircraft’s maturity effectively preclude any participation in the program. Thus, any direct offsets would be limited to the RCAF’s purchases. However, it might be possible to secure significant indirect offsets from BAE Systems or other Eurofighter partner firms such as EADS (the parent company of Airbus.) This, like Boeing’s F/A-18E/F, would likely involve subcontracting on civil airliners for the company’s Airbus division.
A Canadian order would be from the Tranche III production block, which would possess the CAPTOR-E AESA radar and full air-to-ground capability. The latter includes a wide range of air-to-ground weapons commonly used among NATO forces. Tranche III would represent the most capable version of the Eurofighter, and provide a high degree of operational interoperability with Allied forces. Yet, the program’s future prospects are somewhat clouded after that point. The overarching problem surrounds the political and fiscal situation among the partner countries. Deep austerity measures being implemented and the lack of a direct threat has significantly diminished defence spending across Europe. This affects the Typhoon in several different respects.
First, the Eurofighter does not have a continual (or spiral) improvement process for its systems, unlike the Super Hornet or the F-35. Upgrades are developed into large tranches, which must be collectively agreed to by partner countries. This has been an issue in the past, as states disagreed over funding-specific capabilities. The RCAF may one day face the dilemma of joining an upgrade that might not meet all of its needs or, more likely, be forced to develop key capabilities alone. The latter may not be a financially viable prospect: the high cost of upgrading the first tranche of fighters almost led the RAF to scrap the fleet after only 12 years of service.
Yet, future upgrades are not the only pressing concern. As noted earlier, the Eurofighter suffers from high operational costs and low availability, due in part to inefficient multinational arrangements. While the aircraft is set to become the main fighter for Germany and Spain, Italy and the United Kingdom are also partners in the Joint Strike Fighter program. It is quite possible the latter two may prematurely abandon the Eurofighter in order to purchase the more robust capabilities of the F-35. If the fleet is flown at lower rates due to budget cuts, or fewer countries operate the type, the spares availability issue will only worsen as producers shift production to more profitable ventures.
Overall, the Eurofighter offers a difficult choice for Canada. Certainly, it is among the most capable aircraft available and would be an asset for the RCAF, particularly in regards to defending the North. Yet, its high costs, complex management arrangements and limited capabilities in some areas should be a serious concern in any competition.
Gripen NG (JAS-39E/F)
The Saab AB Gripen NG (Next Generation) is considered a versatile multi-role fighter, providing a low cost alternative to other major Western designs. It is currently under development with two customers – Switzerland and Sweden – for a total of 82 fighters currently planned. The program has already been beset by cutbacks: the Swedish parliament has reduced the number of planned purchases from 80-100 aircraft to 60. Moreover, at the time of writing, the Swiss parliament had suspended its air force’s purchase. If the project does move forward, initial deliveries are planned for 2018.
The Gripen NG is currently in the initial development stages, after Riksdagen (the Swedish Parliament) approved the purchase of 60 aircraft. The original Gripen A/B was intended to be a lightweight replacement for two other Saab fighters, the Draken and Viggen. It was a light, agile aircraft, with impressive performance features. In particular, it had exceptional short-range takeoff ability, so that it could operate from unprepared road surfaces in Sweden. It was also extremely affordable, both to procure and operate. The JAS-39A/B/C/D was a moderate export success, with 240 produced between 1993 and 2012.
The JAS-39 E/F builds on the original Gripen, much like how the F/A-18E Super Hornet is an updated and enlarged version of the F/A-18C Hornet. Ironically, it follows the same engine evolution: the Gripen A/C employs a modified GE F404 engine (currently on the F/A-18C); while the Gripen E/F has a GE 414 engine (currently used by the F/A-18E/F). The project attempted to leverage existing technologies or proven suppliers where possible, in order to decrease the development risks facing the program.
Overall, Gripen NG should offer a versatile set of capabilities to Canada. Its AESA (active electronically scanned array) radar and other sensors will provide good situational awareness, which can be augmented with external sensor pods. The Gripen will have significant organic sensor fusion capabilities, and be able to integrate with NATO operations through Link-16 datalink. The Gripen NG will also be equipped with a Saab proprietary data link that allows for effective battlefield networking between most Swedish-built military aircraft. However, it is not available on any other aircraft, limiting its interoperability to other buyers of Saab products.
JAS-39E/F’s aerodynamic performance should roughly resemble that of its predecessor, but with some differences. Saab claims the Gripen NG’s long-range air-to-air combat radius is 700 nautical miles (nm) with a 30-minute loiter period. However, this range can only be achieved by loading the aircraft with large fuel tanks, significantly degrading other aspects of flight performance. A Swiss air force evaluation suggested the Gripen NG could remain aloft for only 66 per cent of the Eurofighter’s and Rafale’s time in the air, with a representative combat load for air to air combat.
The Gripen NG’s largest deficiency is its ability to undertake operations in a denied airspace. The aircraft has only a few low observable features, which will leave it vulnerable to newer generations of air defence systems. Its combat capabilities, including electronic countermeasures and weapon capabilities, are unlikely to exceed that of the F/A-18E/F, given that aircraft’s continual spiral development process. Efforts to keep the Gripen combat capable will also face significant challenges. With no traditional allies planning to adopt the type, Canada may have to shoulder the entire cost and risk of any unique upgrade deemed essential for maintaining its combat effectiveness. Moreover, as noted above, any appreciable weapon capacity must be carried externally, decreasing range and aerodynamic performance. These factors led Saab AB representatives to suggest that Canada consider a joint purchase of F-35s and Gripens during a 2010 parliamentary hearing. The former would be used mostly for expeditionary warfare, with the latter dedicated to responding to domestic contingencies and operations in less contested airspace.
Cost and Industrial Competition
Unfortunately, the Gripen suffers from a problem shared by many Western fighters: an inefficient production scale. With only two confirmed clients and relatively small orders, Saab cannot create manufacturing learning curves or economies of scale that would drive down costs. Moreover, the NG is in a very early stage of development, with over 70 per cent of the aircraft’s systems requiring development from the Gripen C. Already Saab’s cost estimates have increased significantly. In 2010, company representatives stated the aircraft’s per unit flyaway cost would be US $57 million dollars (in 2012 dollars). In 2012, this was revised to approximately US$80 million, only then to reveal that the Swiss government’s fixed cost is approximately US$105 million. Similarly, operational costs estimates have also witnessed significant escalation. In 2010, company representatives stated the Gripen NG’s per flying hour cost would be around US $5,000. Yet Saab has now increased this to US$10,000, and the Swiss military has estimated their costs at approximately US$21,000.
Saab AB has in the past reinvested up to 120 per cent of a contract value into a country as part of an offset package. In addition, it offered to provide complete technology transfer and the option to establish production lines in Canada. However, the latter two are of limited value for Canada. Domestic production will drive up the per-unit costs, as a Canadian line would only manufacture aircraft for the RCAF and never really achieve efficiencies that the Swedish line would. Moreover, technology transfers are unlikely to substantively benefit Canadian industries, as much of the research is only valuable in relation to the Gripen program. It may have some advantages for the RCAF’s ability to maintain and upgrade the aircraft indigenously.
Any direct industrial opportunities on the fighter will likely be limited to the aircraft purchased by the RCAF. Thus, most of the offsets will be indirect in nature, with investment made on projects unrelated to the Gripen’s procurement. Unfortunately, Saab AB has a relatively small industrial relationship with Canadian companies. Thus, it will find difficulty meeting its offset commitment, almost certainly resulting in a lower quality of industrial benefits that are not sustainable for Canadian industries.
Saab AB has offered the Gripen NG to several countries, including India, Denmark, Norway, Brazil, the Netherlands and Switzerland. It has thus far only secured two orders: Sweden and Switzerland, with the Danish competition still ongoing. RCAF deliveries would likely start after 2019 if selected, which would easily fit within DND’s planned budget programming and transition plan.
Looking ahead, the Gripen NG seems to have carved out a narrow niche as an affordable versatile lightweight fighter. However, its position is under threat from new competitors in the market. First, the low end of the fighter market is becoming increasingly competitive, with new offerings from Korea and other states. Second, Gripen faces tough competition at the high end of the market from the Joint Strike Fighter. Given the F-35’s capability and the NG’s high cost (US$80-105 million versus approximately US$95-105 million for a non-partner F-35A), many potential operators may chose to go with the more expensive capability. This situation may leave Saab with fewer market prospects than it enjoyed with the original Gripen.
If the program is implemented and goes according to plan, the Gripen NG should provide an affordable, relatively low risk capability for the Canadian Armed Forces. Yet as successive military development programs have suggested, these estimates may not come into fruition. Moreover, the Gripen NG has significant capability deficiencies, which may come as a detriment to the RCAF’s ability to undertake foreign operations in the future.
Richard Shimooka is a defence analyst with the Conference of Defence Associations Institute. Between 2007 and 2012 he was a fellow at the Defence Management Studies Program at Queen’s University, and is a member of the International Institute of Strategic Studies. Richard recently released a report on the F-35 with the CDAI, entitled Towards an international model for Canadian defence procurement? An F-35 Case Study. He lives in White Rock, B.C.