Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Saab and Boeing team-up? This could be big.

For the record:  I predicted Saab's involvement in the T-X program way back in May.

Due for replacement, the T-38 Talon.
USAF's long delayed T-X program to replace the T-38 Talon trainer may find itself with another challenger soon, thanks to a possible collaberation between American aerospace giant Boeing and that scrappy Swedish company, Saab.

BAE Hawk

KAI T-50 "Golden Eagle"

Alenia Aermacchi M-346 "Master"

Other contenders have suggested updated and "Americanized" versions of existing designs.  Lockheed has proposed a version of the South Korean KAI T-50 "Golden Eagle".  Northrop Grumman has partnered with BAE to offer the Hawk T2/128.  Meanwhile, Italian manufacturer Alenia Aermacchi has offered up its M-346 "Master". Boeing had initially intended to field an all-new design on its own, recent buzz indicates that it may be in the stages of partnering with Saab to develop a T-X contender.

This could be big.

Why?  For one, because Boeing needs this.  It desperately wants to stay in the jet fighter business, but the Super Hornet is nearing the end of its production run and new orders could be few and far between.  The Silent Eagle may have just emerged triumphant from South Korea's KX, but 60 jets based on an old platform isn't really enough compared to F-35 numbers.  Losing the JSF bid to Lockheed was a huge blow.  Being selected for the T-X would be seen as an excellent "consolation prize" for Boeing, and keep them sharp for the upcoming F/A-XX program.

For another, Saab needs this.  Although it has enjoyed moderate sales success with its Gripen, sales of its Gripen NG has been stalled by political indecision and massive marketing pressure behind the competing Lockheed Martin F-35.  Being part of a program that could result in hundreds of aircraft needing to be built would certainly help its bottom line.

Boeing obviously brings its massive marketing and lobbying muscle to the party, as well as a large well of experience building successful fighter jets, after having merged with McDonnell Douglas in 1997.  Legendary fighters such as the F/A-18, F-15, and F-4 are a pretty good legacy to build upon.

Saab 105 trainer

Saab, on the other hand, brings its expertise as a manufacturer of small, simple, yet capable fighters.  Its 105 trainer has been used in both Sweden and Austria, and the Gripen has been adapted into the United Kingdom's Empire Test Pilot School (ETPS).  The Gripen has won praises for its ease of maintenance and low operating costs, as well as its "bang-for-the-buck".

Saab JAS-39 Gripen flying in the Empire Test Pilot School.

While it is possible for Boeing and Saab to develop an all new airframe in its bid for the T-X program, the more likely route is to simply "strip down" the Gripen.  The T-38, after all is based heavily on the F-5 Freedom Fighter, an aircraft the Gripen is often compared to.  Both the F-5 and the Gripen were designed to be affordable and easy to maintain, even for nations with less than extravagant defense budgets.  The Gripen is FAR more capable however, thanks to its more modern and competitive design.

F-5 Freedom Fighter, spitting image of the T-38 Talon.
The Gripen has already been developed, the tooling already exists, and the aircraft itself has an excellent safety record.  Planned improvements for the "NG" JAS-39E/D models, such as increased fuel, upgraded engines, and more advanced sensors would likely not be incorporated, but a new "widescreen" cockpit similar to the F-35's could very well make the switch over.

A Gripen based trainer, built in a partnership with Boeing would indeed have a large amount of potential, not only as a USAF trainer, but in potential world-wide sales.

It goes deeper than that however.  Despite assertions to the contrary, the F-35 may not enjoy the sales initially envisioned for it.  Its rising costs, delays, and tightening military budgets may result in sales much lower than the 3100 or so initially estimated.  If so, this could leave a rather large gap in western air forces as legacy fighters wear out.  This could bring a demand for a much cheaper, yet still capable fighter.  If Boeing and Saab are already building a Gripen based trainer, it would be a no-brainer for them to collaborate on combat-ready model for widespread international sales.

As I have stated before, the Gripen has the potential to be the next fighter to enjoy F-16-like sales success.  It's already a very affordable fighter, even with only about 200 units flying.  If production numbers increased into the thousands, economies of scale would undoubtedly bring the cost of procurement and sustainment down.

Again, this could be the start of something big.

1 comment:

  1. Well played for the Saab involvement prediction!

    There's many contenders in the T-X program, that will be very interesting to follow, especially with the original Boeing-Saab team. A "Gripen-T" win remains a long shot against the already available and dedicated T-50, M346 and Hawk. I don't expect Gripen-T to be the cheaper one, but USA can (usually, maybe not anymore...) afford more expensive hardware than any other nations.

    We're talking about how many jet trainer?
    Mutual benefits between trainer and combat version could be limited : A trainer version of Gripen would probably be build by Boeing in USA, so you would have a "trainer factory" (USA) and a "fighter factory" (Sweden). In order to benefit from the U.S diplomatic strength (necessary if F-16-like sales are the ambition), a license built combat version seems necessary...
    That would be the first of a kind, but that remains possible!

    ReplyDelete

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