Milestones in manufacturing military defense
When the company SAAB is mentioned, the majority of people recognize it as a leading Swedish car manufacturer. What most people don’t realize is that SAAB has also been a world trailblazer in the military defence products arena since 1937, when the company was founded.
Though SAAB started in Sweden, South Africa has been a place for some of SAAB group’s work in military defence procurement. In 2005, SAAB became the majority owner for the South African company, Grintek, and now 11 per cent of SAAB group employees are based into South Africa.
Warren Buckle, Head of Operations for SAAB group South Africa says, “We became a single operating entity and became known as SAAB in South Africa.”
SAAB serves an international market, with operations in every continent. The company is continuously improving its craft and cultivating new technology.
South Africa is one of SAAB’s leading markets with, about 13,200 employees, 11 per cent of those based in South Africa.
Warfare systems in South Africa
South Africa’s history with warfare devices is intertwined with SAAB’s history as an electronic defence system company. When South Africa had an arms embargo, the country was unable to buy any military weapons of a certain caliber. This caused South Africa to set up its own military defence systems production.
Buckle explains, “In Angola, a lot of the Cubans were using Russian weaponry that had certain capabilities and South Africa had no way of trying to counter that. A small set of companies in the Cape really tried to build up a homegrown answer to this.”
At the end of 1989, Namibia gained independence and South Africa was no longer involved with Namibia. A lot of companies that were supplying weaponry and warfare systems were no longer contracted, so they had to either find an overseas partner in the military arena, become a commercial entity or go out of business.
“A lot of the companies, in fact, went the commercial route. Very few remained in the military route. There was a big change when South Africa decided to upgrade all of its weapon systems now that the arms embargo had fallen away,” says Buckle. “A lot of the systems that they did have had been in existence for 20, 30, sometimes 40 years—well beyond expectant life for a system.”
Left were four ships, three submarines and a number of gripen fighters and hawk trainers.
Buckle says, “The ships and submarines were from Germany. The gripen fighters were from SAAB from Sweden, and the hawk was from BAE, from Britain. With all of these deals most will have a substantial offset component and it is basically required from the government.”
The company today
SAAB South Africa has a strong staff of 1,000 with a concentration in Centurion, outside of Pretoria. They also have offices in Cape Town.
“In Cape Town we have about 70 people. We are very small. We focus purely on the naval market, where as in Centurion they are focused on the airborne the land,” said Buckle.
Buckle’s side of the business focuses solely on the naval business. “If you look at SAAB in South Africa, the people that operate at the level are almost at the South African equivalent of the corporate people who work in Sweden. In that you get various business areas of which one of them is the one I work in called electronic defence systems.”
Electronic defence systems are broken into two major business areas according to Buckle. “One is the radar business mainly in Sweden and the other is electronic warfare with a portion in Sweden, a portion in Centurion and a small portion in Cape Town,” said Buckle.
The portion in Centurion is mainly helicopters and transport aircrafts with some on land transportation including tanks and troop carriers. The naval side that Buckle works closely with provides protection on naval ships and submarines.
Electronic warfare systems
Electronic warfare systems are a core business of SAAB South Africa. But to understand the company, it is important to understand the product. Electronic warfare systems are a set of radar sensors and an electronic processor that takes the signal and identifies the radar Buckle explains, “Think of the system as a radio signal, instead of music, it identifies various radars from pulses to radars. By identifying the pulses you are able to identify what weapons system is attached to the pulse.
Then you can also figure out the threat is. You can find if there is a missile and know how to counter this. You can send flares or send smoke and protect you from the threat.”
SAAB South Africa caters to a number of different and important customers, including providing South Korea with systems on three of their boats and have a follow up contract for another six.
They have also installed systems for Greece, Portugal and Germany.
“We’ve done two submarines for Portugal and another three for Greece,” says Buckle. “What happened is the dispute between the Greek government and the German ship builder, mainly because Greece is out of money. For Germany we have delivered four systems for service vessels plus another three for training schools.”
Initially, SAAB South Africa had systems in Cape Town for the South African navy but their focus has changed into an international market. Five years ago, the company was very locally based, and now 90 per cent of its business is international.
SAAB South Africa aims to be the third biggest weapon manufacturer outside of the United States.
Buckle says, “At the Cape Town business our aim is to move in a big way into the surface market and we would like to equip small boats in a number of different markets—probably Germany and Korea as well as South Africa.”
The company also has hopes to expand into the South American market. Currently, they have two contracts to create systems in Columbia.
SAAB South Africa prides itself on its advanced technology and urges consumers that South Africa can create competitive products. Buckle says, “People think of South Africa, and Africa in general, as unable to make any competitive product. We don’t have the big budgets that America has to build very complex systems, however, if you look at the next level we have a very competitive product. We supply to Germany which has a history of being able to gain basically the best technology for the U.S. Navy.
Being part of the SAAB umbrella has afforded access to a larger market. “As being part of a Swedish company we now have access to the international markets which beforehand we never really did. No one had the confidence in us even though we could show them in terms of the product. Being a South African company we weren’t able to compete. Being a part of SAAB we are a world competitor,” say Buckle.
SAAB South Africa is certainly influencing the military defence market in South Africa. With hard work and determination, the company is making a name for itself as a world provider of military defence products, and proving to be a competitive South African business in a worldwide market.