Norway has officially announced its decision to acquire the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter rather than the Saab Gripen Next Generation (NG). The government said that the "JSF is the only candidate which fulfils all the operational requirements specified by the Norwegian Government and is furthermore offered at a lower price than the Gripen NG." According to Reuters, Norway will pay 18 billion kroner, or $2.5 billion, for 48 aircraft.
Official reaction from Saab is in Aviation Week's coverage here. The timing of the decision was a surprise - it was not expected for almost a month.
Of the northern trio of air forces evaluating the JSF against the NG - the others are Denmark and the Netherlands - the latter has leaned strongly towards the JSF for many years and the former - with a smaller requirement - is likely to follow the lead of the others.
Personally, my first reaction is: Thanks a bunch, Noggies! Like everyone else I was expecting an announcement in mid-December and consequently included a forward-looking piece in the next issue of DTI, which hits the streets on Monday. Perfect bloody timing.
Since this has happened, however, I'll boil down some of my conclusions here.
First of all, JSF was until 2006, and even into 2007, the only aircraft being considered by the three nations. I spent several days in early 2007 at an air power seminar at the Norwegian Air Force Academy in Trondheim, and you could not fail to be struck by how deep the preference for the JSF ran among air force officers.
The reason for that was the F-16. The Norwegians, Dutch and Danes - along with the Belgians - were in at the ground floor of the F-16 program and did extremely well with it. The original F-16As are still in service, after a successful mid-life-update program that was mostly paid for by the USAF. Two full generations of pilots have trained alongside the USAF and exchanged with USAF squadrons.
So it has been quite an achievement for the Gripen team to even force a competition. In fact, they had pretty much made the Nordic zone a must-win for Lockheed Martin. To seal the deal, too, the US has had to offer a fixed price - which is ironic, since the Pentagon itself can't, by law, get a fixed price or a multi-year contract until operational testing is finished in 2014.
And Gripen NG is competing in a lot of countries where JSF is not a candidate - including Switzerland, Brazil, India and Eastern European nations like Romania, where Vladimir Putin is doing his best to boost fighter sales. In those markets, the NG is the aircraft that three serious air forces decided was the closest competitor to the F-35. Saab's chances there are still good.
The competition also forced the JSF team to offer a fixed price - the value quoted is a flyaway price of $52 million per aircraft - and a $4.8 billion industrial participation package which is an offset deal in all but name. And to put flyaway price in perspective, compare these numbers with the Israeli F-35 deal.
The pressure will now be on the US to perform. One question: if the Norwegians really have a fixed-price deal, who covers the difference if the aircraft cost more to build than expected - as, historically, almost every new military aircraft in the past three decades has done?