As a neutral country with a long history of providing for its own defense against all comers, Sweden also has a long tradition of building excellent high-performance fighters with a distinctive look. From the long-serving Saab-35 Draken (“Dragon,” 1955-2005) to the Mach 2, canard-winged Saab-37 Viggen (“Thunderbolt,” 1971-2005), Swedish fighters have stressed short-field launch from dispersed/improvised air fields, world-class performance, and leading-edge design. This record of consistent project success is nothing short of amazing for a country whose population over this period has ranged from 7-9 million people.
This is DID’s FOCUS Article for background, news, and contract awards related to the JAS-39 Gripen (“Griffon”), a canard-winged successor to the Viggen that was built as one of the world’s first 4+ generation fighters. Gripen remains the only lightweight 4+ generation fighter type in service, its performance and operational economics are both world-class, and it has become one of the most recognized fighter aircraft on the planet. Unfortunately for its builders, that recognition has come from its appearance in Saab and Volvo TV commercials, rather than from hoped-for levels of military export success. With its 4+ generation competitors clustered in the $60-120+ million range vs. the Gripen’s claimed $40 million/ $50-60 million for Gripen NG, is there a light at the end of the tunnel for Sweden’s lightweight fighter?
- JAS-39: The Gripen Program
- JAS-39NG: A Way Forward?
- JAS-39 Gripen: Sales Opportunities [updated]
- JAS-39 Gripen: Major Events [updated]
- JAS-39 Gripen: Contracts & Awards [updated]
- Additional Readings & Sources
JAS-39: The Gripen Program
JAS-39 Gripen cutaway
The first JAS-39s were delivered in 1993, and the last Swedish plane was due to be delivered in 2007. While exact figures are extremely difficult to come by, sources place the average flyaway cost of the JAS-39 at about $40 million1 per plane, or about $50 million in current dollars. The whole Gripen production run for all customers, according to current orders, will reach 261 aircraft. This consists of:
6 prototypes (5 single-seat, 1 two-seat)
29 JAS-39A Batch 1s (Sweden)
76 JAS-39A Batch 2s (Sweden)
14 JAS-39B two-seater Batch 2s (Sweden)
20 JAS-39C Batch 2s (Sweden)
50 JAS-39C Batch 3s (Sweden)
12 Gripen Cs (Czech Republic)
14 JAS-39D two-seater Batch 3s (Sweden)
2 Gripen D two-seaters (Czech Republic)
17 Gripen Cs (South Africa)
9 Gripen D two-seaters (South Africa)
12 Gripen C/D (Thailand)
The leased Hungarian Gripen C/Ds (12 JAS-39C and 2 JAS-39D) are rebuilt Swedish Batch 1 and 2 aircraft. Additional Gripens have also been delivered to the multinational UK Empire Test Pilot’s School as their fast jet platform, and 6 JAS-39C/D aircraft have been ordered by Thailand, with an option for another 6.
Gripen weapon options
The Gripen has one other asset that is often overlooked: very attractive lifetime operational costs. Each new generation of fighters has proven to be more expensive than its predecessors to operate and maintain, and this is one aspect of the procurement spiral that forces smaller aircraft orders with each new generation of equipment. The JAS-39 was designed from the outset to counter this trend, and lifetime operating costs were given a high priority when making design and equipment decisions.
Equipment commonality and choice are also strengths. Its engine is a derivative of GE’s F404, in wide use on F/A-18 A-D Hornets and many other platforms. A wide variety of international equipment has successfully been tested and integrated with the aircraft including sensors, targeting pods (the LITENING III pod comes as a standard option) and an array of weapons, most recently the MBDA Meteor long-range ramjet air-air missile.
On the industrial front, Saab’s international marketing deal with BAE gave the Swedish aircraft wide global representation, but conflicts of interest and BAE divestitures have left Saab handling international sales. Ties to its parent firms like Investor AB allow it to offer an attractive program of industrial offsets to potential owners.
“In Hungary we just don’t have large numbers of aircraft to train with, but in Spring Flag we faced COMAO (combined air operations) packages of 20, 25 or 30 aircraft. The training value for us was to work with that many aircraft on our radar – and even with our limited experience we could see that the Gripen radar is fantastic. We would see the others at long ranges, we could discriminate all the individual aircraft even in tight formations and using extended modes. The jamming had almost no effect on us – and that surprised a lot of people.
Other aircraft couldn’t see us – not on radar, not visually2 – and we had no jammers of our own with us. We got one Fox 2 kill3 on a F-16 who turned in between our two jets but never saw the second guy and it was a perfect shot. Our weapons and tactics were limited by Red Force rules, and in an exercise like this the Red Force is always supposed to die, but even without our AMRAAMs and data links we got eight or 10 kills, including a Typhoon. Often we had no AWACS or radar support of any kind, just our regular onboard sensors – but flying like that, ‘free hunting,’ we got three kills in one afternoon. It was a pretty good experience for our first time out.”
To keep the basic Gripen relevant, block upgrades occur about every 3 years. Block 19, due in 2009, integrates IRIS-T SRAAM (Short-Range Air-to-Air Missile), NATO’s Link-16 in addition to Gripen’s own shared awareness datalink, and the Cobra helmet-mounted sight. Block 20 in 2012 is expected to include enhancements to the PS-05/A radar, and the ROVER close-air-support data link used with such success by American forces..
Can the Gripen production line survive?
A number of factors could be cited as reasons for Saab finding itself in this situation: purchasing slowdowns across the industry, the inertia of existing relationships and equipment standardization, Sweden’s lack of geopolitical weight in contrast to countries like the USA, France or Russia. In Singapore’s case, its status as a single engine lightweight fighter with limited range also hurt it – as did its partner BAE’s greater interest in promoting its own Eurofighter.
Still, the bottom line is that the Gripen was dependent on exports for profitability, as a result of the unprofitable contract it signed with the Swedish government. The government’s ability to assist with foreign export orders has proven to be very limited, and envisaged export orders have been more in line with skeptics’ predictions rather than corporate hopes.
JAS-39NG: A Way Forward?
One way forward is through upgrades. The JAS-39s on offer to Denmark, India, the Netherlands, Norway, and others all offer a number of important improvements beyond the present C/D versions.
That competitiveness is essential. Like France’s Rafale, which also depended on exports to finance its ongoing development, the Gripen is finding itself dependent on home government handouts in order to remain technologically competitive. That’s less than ideal, but given the Gripen and Rafale’s status as the future backbones of their respective national air forces, non-competitiveness is hardly an option. Absent further foreign sales, therefore, the question for both aircraft is how badly future upgrade costs will eat into their home market’s fighter procurement and maintenance budgets. Which explains Saab’s eagerness to escape this trap.
JAS-39 over Swedish lake
The first set of chosen enhancements will improve the pilot’s situational awareness.
An IRST (infra-red search and track) system will improve target detection, without running the risk that the Gripen will reveal itself by emitting detectable electro-magnetic energy. IRST systems are useful against some ground targets, and all aerial targets. They especially enhance performance against opponents with “low observable” radar stealth enhancements, by giving their pilot additional detection and targeting options. If medium-long range infrared guided missiles like MICA-IR or NCADE are integrated in Gripen at some future date, the IRST system will even provide missile guidance beyond visual range, without triggering the target’s radar warning receivers.
Link 16 is the other major situational awareness upgrade for Gripen Demo/NG. Gripens already come with a proprietary datalink that allows them to see the same picture of the battlefield, but the NATO Link-16 standard adds the ability to share with other aircraft, air defense radars, ships, etc. (see June 11/07 entry, below).
ES-05 Raven AESA
Electronic warfare enhancements are also a component of situational awareness these days. Upgrades to this existing capability are not a major addition, but they do help keep the platform current.
Mechanical upgrades are in the works, too.
JAS-39NG CAP Concept
Hauling all of that around will require a more powerful engine than the current RM12 variant of GE’s popular F404. GE’s F414, produced in partnership with Volvo Aero and in use on the Super Hornet, has already been selected for that requirement. It offers a 25-35% power boost over its predecessor the F404, and the developmental F414 EPE could offer another 20% thrust increase over that in future. Key F414G alterations for the Gripen will include minor changes to the alternator for added aircraft power, and modified Full Authority Digital Electronic Control (FADEC) software that’s modified for single-engine operation, instead of the F/A-18 Super Hornet’s twin-engine configuration.
For now, Saab Group remains on track with the basic Gripen NG program.
In July 2006, Saab received a SEK 1 billion contract from the Swedish government (about $150 million) to improve the aircraft, and develop “Gripen Demo/NG”. This was later followed by a NOK 150 million (about $25 million) agreement with Norway in April 2007, and a set of industrial partnerships with key suppliers.
At present, Saab is leading a team of “Gripen Demo/NG” partners that include:
- Saab Aerosystems (Prime contractor and lead system integrator)
- Saab Microwave Systems (Raven AESA radar)
- Swedish government/FMV (financing and advisory)
- General Electric together with Volvo Aero (modified F414 engine)
- Finmeccanica subsidiary Selex Galileo (Raven AESA radar)
- Martin-Baker (ejection seats)
- Rockwell Collins
- Terma A/S
- Thales (IFF, Gripen Demo AESA radar cooperation)
Sea Gripen Concept
Some reports have touted the possibility of a thrust-vectoring engine in future Gripen upgrades, but this was not listed as a selling point in Saab’s submissions to Norway or Denmark, and has not been mentioned in any Gripen Demo descriptions. More probable rumors involve upgrading existing fighters to JAS-39 C+/D+, by adding the improved F414G engine.
Other reports over the years have focused on a carrier-capable Sea Gripen. That’s usually a very difficult conversion, but Saab can take advantage of the aircraft’s natural STOL design. It can fly from a 6×900 meter/ 20×2,950 foot runway, and land in 600 meters or less – without a catapult, an arrester hook or a braking chute.
The Sea Gripen would add new undercarriage and nose gear to cope with higher sink rate forces and catapult launches, strengthen the existing Gripen NG’s tail hook and some airframe sections, and upgrade anti-corrosion protection. Launch options would include both catapult (CATOBAR) and “ski jump” ramp short take-off (STOBAR) capabilities, with maximum launch weight about 1/3 lower for STOBAR launches. Carrier landing speed is already in the required range under 150 knots, but the current 15 foot/sec sink rate needs to be able to reach 25 foot/sec.
India was the initial Sea Gripen sales target; Dec 29/09 materials indicate that this option was raised in Saab’s response to the M-MRCA RFI. India picked the MiG-29K and its own future Tejas LCA Naval variant for its carriers, however, and Gripen is not currently an M-MRCA contender. Sea Gripens also have a possible future role in Brazil as a naval aircraft on INS Sao Paolo, or as a backup choice to Britain’s F-35C Lightning IIs on its new CVF carriers. Saab had indicated that it would spend up to half of Gripen NG’s development budget on this variant, if it found a partner. In May 2011, however, an announcement seemed to indicate that the firm was beginning to move forward on its own, with development centered in the UK.
Note: article from defense industry daily