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Saab, Kongsberg post record orders as Europe boosts defense spending

PARIS — Nordic defense companies reported record levels of business last year as European countries ramped up military spending in the face of Russia’s war in nearby Ukraine.

Sweden-based Saab, the 33rd largest defense contractor in the world according to Defense News’ Top 100 list, said orders increased 23% to 77.8 billion Swedish kronor (U.S. $7.4 billion) last year, lifting the order book to an all-time high of 153.4 billion kronor (U.S. $14.6 billion).

Norway’s Kongsberg — ranked at No. 61 in the list — took in 37.8 billion kroner (U.S. $3.6 billion) of orders for its defense business in 2023, raising the division’s order book to a record 65.4 billion kroner (U.S. $6.2 billion). That included 16 billion kroner for a coastal defense missile system for Poland, the company’s largest contract ever.

European Union members boosted their defense budgets after Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. The return of a large-scale war on the continent raised concern among European governments that their defense-industrial bases and armed forces were ill-prepared for high-intensity warfare.

“Defense sales have been up since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine,” Ed Arnold, a research fellow for European security at the London-based Royal United Services Institute think tank, told Defense News. “The main issue is that production lines have not yet increased sufficiently, and therefore there is a scramble by nations to get defense kit and equipment.”

EU countries were set to spend about €270 billion (U.S. $291 billion) on defense in 2023, European Council President Charles Michel said in November. The 27-nation bloc spent a record €240 million in 2022.

Norway plans to order National Advanced Surface-to-Air Missile Systems from Kongsberg for delivery to Ukraine — an acquisition worth 3.45 billion kroner that includes 10 launch units and four fire-control centers, the country said in a statement Friday. That would be in addition to purchasing equipment to refill stocks after the country donated materiel to Ukraine. Norwegian Defence Minister Bjørn Arild Gram said he wants to reacquire air defenses “as quickly as possible.”

European countries have realized they must spend more on defense to deter Russia, Saab CEO Micael Johansson said at a meeting about the company’s full-year results. He added that “it’s quite scary to see” how the U.S. is wavering in its support for Ukraine, noting that Europe has to step up.

He called on governments to provide the continent’s defense industry with long-term commitments in return for investing in capacity and new production sites, to avoid a repeat of the dismantling of the local defense industry that followed the end of the Cold War. He acknowledged increasing capacity in Europe “will take some time.”

“I am prepared to take risk, but it has to be in some sort of handshake with governments if I’m going to do more in terms of new sites, high capacity,” Johansson said. “We can’t afford to dismantle things once more. That is what the long-term commitment is about.”

Saab’s business in the fourth quarter of 2023 included a 1.3 billion kroner order for the Carl-Gustaf recoilless rifle and a 1 billion kroner order from Boeing for fuselage systems for the T-7 jet trainer.

In Finland, Patria reported orders increased 19% to €946 million, while the year-end order book increased to €1.94 billion. The company, whose products include armored vehicles and mine-sweeping sensors, is 49.9% owned by Kongsberg, with Finland owning the remainder. Patria is the 91st largest defense company in the world.

“Midsize companies such as Patria are doing exceptionally well, as they produce many products which can get into service immediately, as opposed to large defense programs, which often develop over decades,” Arnold said.

Meanwhile, the British Defence Ministry boosted spending with local industry and commerce by 8% to a record £25 billion (U.S. $32 billion) in financial year 2022-2023, when adjusted for inflation, the ministry reported Thursday. Overall spending, including with foreign suppliers, reached £28 billion.

Weapons and ammunition registered the biggest increase, with spending on the domestic industry surging 76% to £2.1 billion, the highest level in at least 10 years. Local spending on shipbuilding and repair rose 23% to £5.5 billion, due to a £2 billion investment to support the Dreadnought-class nuclear submarine project.

Rudy Ruitenberg is a Europe correspondent for Defense News. He started his career at Bloomberg News and has experience reporting on technology, commodity markets and politics.

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