PARIS --- In a surprise reversal, Sweden’s Saab has decided to pull out of Canada’s fledging fighter competition, although it may rejoin later if conditions change, the company said June 3. Saab is the first of the five competitors to pull out, but other competitors also have expressed doubts that the competition will be fair and open.
“Saab followed the discussions in Canada with interest [but] at this time and stage of the evaluation process, Saab has decided not to take part,” the company said in a June 3 e-mail message. “Our conclusion is that the conditions were not yet ripe for us to act.”
Saab’s withdrawal is all the more surprising that, just days before the week-end, it appeared eager to continue the competition. Saab executive vice-president Patrick Palmer was quoted by Postmedia news May 31 as saying that “I think [Canada] really [has] a desire to get the information. I don’t think they have a predefined outcome. And we are supportive of it.”
In a June 3 e-mailed statement, Saab spokeswoman Karin Walka added that “as the customer continues to mature their process and further define the way forward, Saab will re-evaluate this decision, based on our assessment the Government of Canada’s requirements, to see if and how Saab can take part in the continuing process as well as the applicability of any potential Saab solution.”
Canadian officials quoted May 31 by the Sun News Network say the possibility of buying Saab fighters is not permanently discounted. "Not participating in the market analysis in no way precludes a company from participating in any potential, future competitive process," one official said.
Saab had expressed interest in competing to replace the Royal Canadian Air Force’s fleet of CF-18 Hornet fighters, in which Boeing (F-18E), Dassault Aviation (Rafale) and Eurofighter (Typhoon) are competing against the Lockheed-Martin F-35, which the Canadian government was publicly committed to buy until its skyrocketing price, technical problems and a particularly slanted procurement process forced it to “re-set” the project in December.
“Defence companies whose fighter jets are competing against the F-35 stealth fighter have raised concerns about the new way bureaucrats are evaluating options for Canada’s next warplane,” Postmedia newspapers reported May 31, adding that “There are worries F-35 manufacturer Lockheed Martin continues to enjoy a distinct advantage despite the Conservative government’s promise to push the reset button, with some saying the best solution is an open competition.”
To restore confidence, the Canadian government took responsibility for managing the fighter procurement process away from the Department of National Defence and moved it to a newly-created National Fighter Procurement Secretariat (NFPS) which prepared a 7-point plan to which it is scrupulously adhering.
However, industrial benefits obtained to date by Canadian industry in the F-35 program – US$488 million as of last week – the strong bias previously shown by the government, the DND and the RCAF in favor of the F-35 has left some manufacturers pretty dubious about the competition’s fairness.
“The best proof that this is a genuine process would be arriving at the end of this year with a decision to really open a competition,” said Dassault senior vice-president Yves Robins.
Describing its progress to date, the Fighter Secretariat said in a May 31 statement that “The focus of…. work over the past few months has been on the…. evaluation of options. Companies with available aircraft have been engaged through questionnaires on fighter aircraft capabilities, price and industrial benefits. Companies were briefed on the assessment methodology for the capability questionnaire on May 3, 2013 and price and industrial benefits questionnaires on May 31, 2013.”
It also said that its “methodology, the three questionnaires and the approach to options analysis have been developed by the Secretariat and the Royal Canadian Air Force, and reviewed and challenged by the Independent Review Panel”, which meets regularly and ensures “the work to evaluate options is both rigorous and impartial.”
Saab notes in its statement that “We continue our focus on currently on-going Gripen campaigns in the rest of the world as well as the continuing process to provide the Gripen E (the next generation) to Sweden and potentially to Switzerland.”.