Swedish jet maker Saab is crying foul over Canada’s move toward procuring the Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II over its Gripen fighter.
While the decision is not yet final, the Public Services and Procurement Canada (PSPC) agency has moved to negotiate the final terms of delivery with Lockheed, including price per tail number, delivery schedule and so-called “economic benefits”, jargon for domestic jobs that will be created under the programme.
Speaking during a committee hearing on air defence procurement in Ottawa’s House of Commons on 29 September, Saab Canada president Simon Carroll argued that those details were meant to be finalised in each competitor’s official bid, according to the government’s original request for proposal (RFP).
“There should be no negotiation on these critical elements,” Carroll argues to Members of Parliament. “These elements of the bidder’s response were to be committed to and then evaluated as part of the competitive process,” he adds.
The Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) is seeking to purchase 88 new fighters to phase out its ageing fleet of CF-18s, the local designation for the Boeing F/A-18 Hornet. Ottawa announced its preference for the F-35A in late March.
Carroll declines to speculate as to why the Canadian government opted for the F-35 over the Gripen. However, Saab appears to believe that its proposal offered better terms than Lockheed’s, with Carroll describing the Gripen package as “no compromises to Canada”.
“It offered budget stability, it offered the right capability for the aircraft in creating more interoperability… along with the actual operational and technical capability of the aircraft,” Carroll says.
He also describes Saab’s bid as a “100% guaranteed economic benefits package that would benefit Canada now and well into the future”.
Despite the objections, Saab has not yet moved to file a formal objection. No final decision has yet been made, and it remains possible that Ottawa could reverse course and opt for the Gripen, if negotiations with the USA’s Lockheed break down.
While some MPs appeared sympathetic, others pushed Saab on whether or not it was fair to claim the Gripen offers equivalent capability to the stealthy F-35.
Bloc Quebecois MP Julie Vignola notes that the Committee on Government Operations and Estimates has been told “the F-35 was preferred because it was a fifth-generation aircraft and the Gripen is a fourth-generation aircraft which has limited abilities against the Russian air force”.
“So I would like to hear from you about the operational capacities. What are the advantages of the Gripen over the F-35?”, Vignola asks of Saab’s team.
Patrick Palmer, Saab Canada’s executive vice-president, responded, arguing the generational distinction was more of a surface level comparison than a substantive difference.
“Gripen is designed to be credible, relevant, and state of the art for the life of the programme,” Palmer says.
He went on to dismiss the fifth-generation label as essentially a branding gimmick.
“The notion of fourth-generation is actually more of a marketing term than anything else,” Palmer claims. ”We’ve gone away from generations and looked at it as a generation-less fighter,” he adds.
The concept of generations in fighter aircraft development has loosely existed since the 1990s.
Although the classifications are not official in any way, fourth-generation aircraft generally include jet-powered platforms with fly-by-wire controls, a head-up display and the ability to perform both air-to-air and air-to-ground missions.
Fifth-generation fighters build on those technologies, while adding stealthy and low-observable designs, improved flight performance and an array of highly-advanced sensor systems that can be networked to other friendly aircraft.
Saab says the Gripen is designed as a highly-flexible platform that can be quickly and easily upgraded with new sensors, radars and software as needs arise.
Lockheed declines to address the specific comments made by the Saab team. However, the company says it believes the F-35 will strengthen defence of the Canadian Arctic and North American security more broadly.
“The F-35 is the most advanced, most survivable, best value fighter to replace the Royal Canadian Air Force CF-18 fleet… [it] gives pilots the critical advantage against any adversary, enabling them to execute their mission and come home safe,” the US company says.
For its part, the PSPC says it is committed to meeting the RCAF’s requirements for a new fighter, while also generating “high-value jobs in Canada”, and creating growth in the country’s domestic aerospace and defence sectors.
While it did not directly address Saab’s complaint, a PSPC statement provided to FlightGlobal notes that the current negotiations with Lockheed are part of the “finalisation phase” laid out in the government’s bid solicitation.
“During this phase, the top-ranked bidder must successfully demonstrate that a resulting contract would meet all of Canada’s requirements and outcomes, including value for money, flexibility, protection against risks, and performance and delivery assurances, as well as high-value economic benefits for Canada’s aerospace and defence industry,” the PSPC explains.
“This competitive procurement process ensures that we are selecting the right fighter, at the right price, with the right benefits for the Canadian economy,” an agency representative adds.
The procurement body also notes that the entire decision process has been overseen by an unnamed “independent third-party” to ensure fair treatment of all bids.