Julian Moxon/STOCKHOLM

Austria is being lined up by Saab Aerospace to become the second export customer for its Gripen multi-role fighter.

Sources close to the Austrian ministry of defence say that while it has yet to issue a request for information for fighters to replace its ageing Saab Drakens, the Gripen decision is "virtually a done deal".

Saab's principal rival is Lockheed Martin, which confirms it would offer Austria used F-16 A/Bs. The company concedes, however, that Sweden "is very strong there".

Saab Aerospace senior vice-president and general manager Ake Svensson says the urgent Austrian requirement for 24 aircraft to replace its Drakens by 2003 cannot be met with new production Gripens. "So we're talking about a transition programme in which Viggens would be used."

The move would give time for Austria to take delivery of the latest Batch 3 Gripens. With improved cockpit situation awareness and mission equipment, these are due to enter service with the Swedish air force in the second half of 2003.

Svensson says that the Nether-lands has joined the list of potential customers for the Gripen as a long-term F-16 replacement. Although it has already signed up to the USJoint Strike Fighter programme, he says Dutch defence circles are debating the need for an advanced, expensive capability "when the Gripen is as good a systems platform as anything available".

The Gripen formed the core of a demonstration to the NATO air defence committee on 9 November, undertaken at Satenas air base in southern Sweden. Air-to-air and air-to-ground missions were carried out using the aircraft's Tactical Information Datalink System. All mission details including target acquisition and weapons firing data were broadcast to other aircraft and to ground-based controllers, but with no voice communication between pilots. The demonstration showed how the Swedish air force could contribute to future NATO operations.

Source: Flight International