Saab CEO Says Warplane Maker Could Join U.K.-Led Fighter Program

(Bloomberg) -- Saab AB, maker of the Gripen warplane, said it’s interested in joining a U.K.-led project to develop a cutting-edge combat aircraft that would be a mainstay of defense programs in two decades time.

While Saab is also evaluating a rival Franco-German fighter plan, the Tempest program funded by Britain’s Ministry of Defence and including BAE Systems Plc and Rolls-Royce Holdings Plc has more appeal for the Swedish company, Chief Executive Officer Hakan Buskhe said Friday.

“We’re much more intensive in discussion with the Brits than the other consortium,” Buskhe said in a phone briefing. “It looks very promising, and I think we jointly can do good things together.” BAE once held a 35 percent stake in Saab and the pair cooperated in a venture to help market the Gripen.

Britain unveiled a full-sized model of the new Tempest fighter at the Farnborough air show on Monday, pledging 2 billion pounds ($2.6 billion) of funding for a concept aircraft through 2025. Team Tempest also includes the U.K. arm of MBDA, Europe’s biggest missile company, and Leonardo SpA of Italy, a partner of BAE on the current Eurofighter program.

Brexit Shift

Ranged against the British-led jet is a grouping of Airbus SE, which is also part of Eurofighter through it’s German arm, and Dassault Aviation SA of France, maker of the rival Rafale warplane.

The expense of developing a so-called sixth-generation fighter was expected to bring Europe’s combat-jet makers closer together, avoiding a repetition of having three competing models, but after the 2016 Brexit vote the German and French governments announced a new partnership, with Airbus suggesting that Britain could be frozen out.

That stance has since been watered down, with Airbus defense chief Dirk Hoke saying at Farnborough that the Franco-German tie-up should be open to all and that a future combat air system without BAE would not be “as good.”

Leonardo said at the expo that it’s open to cooperating on other fighter programs but at the moment is in the British “camp.” Other candidates for joining Tempest include Japan and nations in Asia, where demand for warplanes is increasing as China and India flex their military muscle.

Buskhe said the focus elsewhere on developing a future combat plane might spur sales of the Gripen, given Saab’s commitment to building a further version of the plane, the Gripen E, which is scheduled for first delivery next year. The upgrade jet has won orders from Sweden and Brazil.

“That gives us, the only ones building a new fighter, a big advantage,” he said. “We have something new, they have a plan to change something old to something new.”

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