The Gripen team occupies the high ground at the Farnborough show this year in a new prime-site chalet and with the Swedish fighter flying a daily solo routine. Meanwhile, seven Swedish Air Force Gripen fighters flew to Alaska this past weekend to participate in their first “Red Flag” exercise. In practical terms, that deployment will demonstrate more about the Gripen’s capability and prospects than the marketing effort going on here.
Why? Because the Swedes will be demonstrating true interoperability with multinational forces in an expeditionary scenario for the first time, and because the latest JAS 39C/D versions of the Gripen will be attacking ground targets with laser-guided bombs. A few years ago this would have been politically impossible for traditionally neutral Sweden. Now, though, the country is committed to offensive fighter operations as part of a Nordic Battle Group that the European Union can deploy.
“Sweden Inc.” has stepped up to the challenge of marketing the Gripen for export. The Czechs and Hungarians negotiated deals with the FMV, Sweden’s defense department, for 14 aircraft each. Those deals involve 10-year leases with major unrelated economic offsets. Saab itself negotiated the other export order to date, 28 for the South African Air Force (SAAF), the first of which it delivered last month. In return, Saab placed subcontracts with and has invested in the South African defense industry.
Gripen International sales director Bob Kemp hopes to sell 200 more aircraft over the next 10 years. Bulgaria, Greece, Romania, Slovakia and Switzerland are all good prospects, he said, adding that he hopes to dislodge Denmark and Norway from the Joint Strike Fighter camp. According to Kemp, both the Brazilian and Thai air forces “have selected the Gripen twice” and in both cases higher-level politics prevented closure of the deals. Then there is India, “where we’re the ideal MiG-21 replacement,” he said.
A complicating factor for Kemp and his company is that Sweden ordered 204 aircraft, but after big defense cutbacks needs only about 100. Saab has delivered two thirds of the Swedish order. The 14 for Hungary came from this total, while the Czech and SAAF aircraft were new-builds.
The Swedish air force will eventually upgrade about 30 of its original 120 A/B production airplanes to the C/D standard, which offers a new mission computer, full-color displays, in-flight refueling, more weapons options and full NATO interoperability. That potentially will leave about 80 Swedish A/Bs for resale after upgrade.
In the Red Flag exercise, the Gripens will be carrying Litening III targeting pods to aim 500-pound GBU-12 laser-guided bombs (LGBs). The other air-to-surface weapons qualified on the Gripen are GBU-10 and 16 LGBs, Mk82/83/84 bombs, AGM-65G/H Maverick, the Rbs15 anti-ship missile and the DWS39 dispenser.
The Gripen has flown the Taurus cruise missile, but not yet dropped it. It carries the AIM-120B/C Maverick and AIM-9L/M Sidewinder air-to-air weapons, and has accomplished one firing of the IRIS-T AAM. The Swedish Air Force aircraft are equipped with a Saab-designed modular reconnaissance pod system.
According to Kemp, the company has grouped the weapons interface software for the Gripen to allow quicker, cheaper integration. This feature evidently appealed to MBDA, which has chosen the Gripen as the main test platform for the Meteor long-range AAM, which the Eurofighter and Dassault Rafale will carry. Two test firings have been completed on the Vidsel range, and 80 percent of the Meteor envelope will be explored by test launches from the Swedish fighter over the next five years.
Parts of Saab’s new planning evaluation training rehearsal analysis (PETRA) system will also be deployed to Alaska. This package is the only combat aircraft simulation system that performs both the training and the mission planning functions. The same digital data transfer units used in the Gripen can be plugged into the simulator. In addition to Sweden, the Czech Republic and Hungary have also ordered PETRA, which could easily be adapted for other aircraft, according to Saab.
The life-cycle costs of the Gripen compare very favorably with other fighters, according to Kemp. “At $3,500 to $4,000 per hour, our operating cost is about half that of an F-16,” he added. The Eurofighter, he insisted, costs “much more” to operate.
Saab recently merged its support organization for the 340 and 2000 airliners with that for the Gripen. According to Kemp, this will foster innovative solutions for the combat jet, such as availability-based contracts.
The Gripen has–unexpectedly–been in competition with twin-engine fighters such as the Eurofighter. However, Austria preferred the Eurofighter to the Gripen, and Poland chose Lockheed Martin’s F-16. Still, the obvious operational maturity of the Swedish aircraft, and its very capable support and training structure in that Nordic nation, suggest that Kemp’s optimism on future exports could yet be justified.