By Robert Smol
Sweden is a non-aligned country only slightly larger than Newfoundland and Labrador with only one-quarter the population of Canada. They are best known for their generous social welfare policies, high taxes, high standard of living, and technological and retail innovations.
They are also the only small country to have successfully designed, developed and, more recently, exported its own fighter jet to NATO and around the world.
And while Canada continues to dither over which brand of U.S.-produced fighter jet we are to paint the maple leaf on, Sweden is already in production, and awaiting delivery of, its latest domestically designed and produced multirole fighter: the JAS 29 Gripen E produced by Saab.
These new generation fighter jets will gradually replace the country’s existing fleet of “old” Gripens which, nonetheless, are still 15 years younger than the CF-18s that Canada continues to fly and, by all current indications, will likely continue to have to fly many years into the future.
In the meantime, this small Scandinavian country, which mandates five weeks of paid vacation for all its citizens, has 100 per cent paid maternity leave for over a year, and provides free university education to its youth, also has more operational fighter jets in service than Canada: 94 to 77.
In some cases, the Swedish government has looked to Europe or the U.S. to procure additional military aircraft and, as a result, has acquired more of the latest military hardware than what the Royal Canadian Air Force has in most categories.
How well does Canada’s air force stand up against Sweden’s? Let’s consider the facts beginning with the political legacies that brought the two air forces to their current states of being.
In 1959 Conservative Prime Minister John Diefenbaker, with little to no protest from the Liberals, chose to cancel Canada’s Avro Arrow program and destroy all existing prototypes and plans of this innovative fighter jet. At around this same time, Sweden was in production of its first delta wing supersonic fighter. In 1964 the first version of the Swedish-designed and manufactured Draken was in service with the Swedish Air Force (Flygvapnet). The Draken was the first European fighter jet to break the sound barrier. In the 1970s the Draken was replaced by the Viggen, which was also produced by Saab.
Between 1951 and the mid-1990s, Canada’s air force flew a variety of jet fighters: CF-100 Canuck (1951-1984), CF-116 Freedom Fighter (1968-1995), CF-86 Sabre (1950-1977), CF-101 Voodoo (1961-1987), and CF-104 Starfighter (1961-1988). As many veterans will remember, the capability of many of these jets were in question during their operational life. Finally, in 1982, Canada acquired the CF-188 from the U.S. in both single-seat and dual-seat variants. The aircraft is still in use today, and has undergone multiple modernization upgrades to ensure it is equipped with technologically advanced systems, ensuring interoperability with Canada’s allied air forces.
In the 1980s, Sweden began work on its next generation of fighter jets, the JAS 39 Gripen. Of course, as with all newly designed aircraft, the Gripen had problems in the early stages of its development. In the beginning there were issues with the aircraft’s flight control and fire control systems as well as with its avionics, resulting in the original Gripen crashing on one of its early test flights. But with the resolve and confidence that can only come with a country determined to chart its own course in the world, those issues were resolved. The Gripen entered service with the Swedish Air Force in 1997. Since then, multiple versions of the Gripen have been produced to meet different operational environments.
In May 2016, the latest version of the Gripen (JAS 29E) was unveiled. According to Saab, the new generation of the Gripen is interoperable with NATO standards and armament and is designed for the latest network-centric warfare and operational dominance environment.
Among the selling features of the new Gripen, promoted by Saab, is the active electronically scanned array (AESA) antenna providing the aircraft with a network of small antennas that “can simultaneously and independently track different targets.” The Gripen also carries an advanced Tactical Information Data Link System (TIDLS), which provides the pilot with total situational awareness — displayed information includes position, speed and weapons status among others — allowing the aircraft to “communicate two ways with all armed units” in the formation.
The Gripen also comes with an infrared search and track (IRST) passive sensor attached on the aircraft’s nose. Without giving the aircraft’s position away, the IRST is able to “look forward in a wide sector registering heat emissions from other aircraft, helicopters, and from objects on the ground and sea surface.”
Apart from Sweden, which currently has 70 of the newest Gripens on order, this next-generation Gripen will also be serving in the Czech and Hungarian air forces (which are currently leasing the older Gripens). Outside of Europe, Saab has received orders for the new Gripen from Brazil as well as South Africa and Thailand (which already have older Gripens in service). India and Botswana are also in talks to purchase the Gripen.
Just over 70 years ago Canada emerged from the Second World War with one of the largest and most advanced air forces in the world. But today, depending on when and how Canada finally decides to replace its aging CF-18, we may actually enter a period where Thailand and Botswana will have newer, and likely more advanced, fighter aircraft than Canada.
Imagine (or choke on) that!
It seems that when it comes to military procurement, Canada is like the slovenly teenager trying the wake up in time for class. In spite of the agonizing whining and delay they know they have to get going. And though they will eventually arrive, it will most likely be too late.
And when it comes to procuring new operational helicopters, and putting them in operation, Sweden has done its homework.
Regardless of any challenges the Swedes may have faced in their own procurement program, their complement of new operational military helicopters is at this stage noticeably greater than Canada. And in spite of Canada’s overwhelming size and population advantage (and that obviously includes taxpayers), the number of helicopters in Sweden’s fleet, with the exception of utility helicopters, actually comes out to be almost the same.
It has been almost 23 years since former Prime Minister Jean Chrétien cancelled the EH-101 procurement in 1993, the planned replacement for the then-30-year-old CH-124 Sea King helicopters, claiming that the new helicopters were “Cadillacs” that the country did not need and much less afford. And even when reality set in — after the glacially slow procurement process for the Maritime Helicopter Project began in 2004 with the awarding of a contract for 28 CH-148 Cyclones from Sikorsky — it is only in the last few months that painful little baby steps have truly been made to bring the much-needed replacement into operation.
At this stage the Canadian Armed Forces has received delivery of six CH-148 Cyclones (the replacement for the Sea King, which entered service in 1963) tasked with surface and sub-surface surveillance and control as well as search and rescue. Over the years the program has been plagued with delays and cost overruns to the point where the military is questioning the aircraft’s suitability. Nonetheless, a further 22 helicopters are to arrive over the next five years to serve and protect the country with the largest coastline in the world.
Sweden, which by way of comparison has a coastline 1.6 per cent the length of Canada’s, acquired 18 European designed and manufactured NH90 helicopters (Swedish designation HKP14) in 2007 for anti-submarine warfare (ASW) as well as search and rescue. At around the same time Sweden acquired 20 Italian AgustaWestland A109 (HKP15) lightweight helicopters, which are used as a utility and search and rescue aircraft on land and sea. In 2011, the Swedish Air Force purchased 15 UH-60 Black Hawk (HKP16) tactical transport helicopters from Sikorsky.
In the meantime, the bulk of Canada’s coastal helicopter fleet continues to be our remaining 27 CH-124 Sea Kings that were acquired in 1963, the same year Lester B. Pearson defeated John Diefenbaker and became prime minister. Although today’s Sea Kings are older than most of the personnel flying them, the RCAF nonetheless continues to put a brave face on its vintage fleet boasting that it “remains one of the busiest aircraft in Canada’s Air Force.”
Staying exclusively in the search and rescue role, the second largest country in the world with the largest coastline has gone as far as to acquire 14 CH-149 Cormorants — based on a modified EH-101 platform — in 2003. In terms of tactical transport, Canada purchased 15 Chinook CH-147F in 2013.
So here is the balance sheet. When the Sea Kings are finally retired, Canada will have 28 ASW/surveillance helicopters (of questionable capability), 14 SAR and 15 tactical transport helicopters for a total of 57. Sweden, on the other hand, currently has 53 modern operational helicopters built after 2005 filling those roles. Embarrassing when you consider the massive size and population difference of these two countries.
Until their retirement last year the “grandfathers” of the Swedish helicopter fleet were 12 Eurocopter Super Pumas built in 1988, a full 25 years after our Sea Kings.
Of course Canada also has 85 small CH-136 Griffon utility transport helicopters that became operational in 1996 as well as much older fixed-wing SAR and transport aircraft, such as six 49-year-old CC-115 Buffalos and four CC-138 Twin Otters that entered service in 1970, just before our current prime minister was born.
In terms of numbers, Canada beats Sweden with respect to surveillance aircraft. The RCAF currently operates 18 CP-140 Auroras, which were mostly built in the early 1980s. There is no replacement in sight as Canada is currently trying to extend the life of the Auroras to 2030! That will mean they will be matching the Sea Kings in longevity when they are finally retired.
However, Sweden’s fleet of four S-100 Argus airborne early warning aircraft is much newer, having been acquired in 1997; the fleet has also undergone major upgrades in recent years. The S-100 is equipped with FSR 890 Flyburgen spanning radar, and a long-range pulse Doppler radar is fitted to the aircraft’s spine on a fixed active phased array antennae. This radar can detect incoming aircraft from a range of 350 kilometres.
We may not be able to match the Swedes with respect to fighter aircraft capability and may be lagging when it comes to modern operational helicopters, but a true advantage Canada may hold over Sweden is in the area of strategic airlift. The RCAF transport fleet currently has 30 Hercules transports: 17 new CC-130J Super Hercules and 13 older CC-130s. The RCAF also flies five CC-177 Globemaster III strategic airlifters and five CC-150 Polaris aircraft. In comparison, Sweden has six C-130H Hercules and has access to three C-17A Globemasters through NATO’s Strategic Airlift Capability Program.
How well could Canada’s air force, acting alone, do against Sweden? If the number of modern fighter aircraft and upgraded technology are the key factors, then the answer is probably not very well. Of course, Sweden is certainly not a country that has any intention of initiating a conflict with any of its neighbours. So, relative to Canada, what could be the reason behind Sweden’s decision to maintain a modernized air force? Essentially, Sweden cannot afford to consistently fail and falter in taking realistic steps to maintain a modern, well-equipped military. Unlike Canada, Sweden is nowhere near as intimately tied into — nor be able to piggyback upon — the military might of a major superpower (like the United States). Their government knows that the defence of their country is first and foremost their own responsibility. Only when we here in Canada take the same attitude will the political resolve be sufficient enough to get the military equipment we need.