Paris Air Show

Saab extending Gripen life past 2040

 - June 20, 2007, 12:01 AM

As Saab celebrates its 70th birthday this year (and 50 years at the Paris Air Show), the company is on the verge of a major technology demonstration program of the Gripen NG that will ensure the viability of the JAS 39 Gripen fighter “well beyond 2040,” according to Gripen International managing director Johan Lehander.

Next week a proposal goes before the Swedish parliament covering the upgrade of 31 older JAS 39A/B aircraft to the current JAS 39C/D production standard. Allied to new production machines, that will bring the total number of C/Ds up to the Swedish air force’s requirement for 100 aircraft. The remaining older aircraft will become available for export. Included in the proposal is a Gripen Demo program to bring together and display a host of airframe/powerplant changes and new technologies. The Demo configuration greatly enhances the Gripen’s performance and load-carrying ability, and its avionics.

Saab Heads Gripen Demo Team
For the demonstration, Saab leads a team that includes Terma, APPH, ABSC, Martin-Baker, Rockwell Collins, Honeywell and General Electric/Volvo Aero. Under the proposal currently up for parliamentary review, the Swedish government will provide a JAS 39A airframe for the Saab team to use as the basis for the flying portion of the demonstration. Once modified, it will emerge from the Linköping plant as a two-seater. As well as the flying Demo aircraft, there will be a ground-based rig to demonstrate the new avionics suite. The Demo aircraft is due to fly next year, with the program scheduled to last until 2010.

At the heart of the Gripen Demo is the desire to expand the aircraft’s range and weapons load. Without affecting the overall dimensions of the aircraft, the Saab team has increased the internal fuel by 40 percent. This has been cleverly achieved by moving the main undercarriage out to fairings nestling under the wing roots. In the current aircraft the landing gear retracts into the lower fuselage, but moving it outboard frees up a significant amount of internal volume that can be used for fuel. The weapons pylons have been beefed up for heavier weapons, while the relocation of the main undercarriage creates more available width under the fuselage for weapon pylons–three in all.

With these changes, maximum takeoff weight rises from the current 14 to 16 metric tons. To cater for the extra weight and to improve up-and-away performance, the Demo team has selected the General Electric F414G to power the Gripen NG. Earlier options to produce versions of the incumbent F404/RM12 with up to 17 percent extra thrust have been discarded in favor of the 22,000-pound F414G, which offers a 35-percent thrust increase over the current RM12. This considerable increase will allow the Gripen NG to supercruise (fly supersonically without afterburner) with air defense weapons and provides a comfortable thrust margin for any future weight increases.

The F414G is very similar to the engine that powers the Super Hornet, but there are some minor modifications required to increase alternator power and to alter the FADEC system for a single-engine aircraft application. For the demonstration, GE is supplying two F414s with suitable modifications. GE’s partner, Volvo Aero (which builds the current RM12 and supplies major F414 components), will oversee installation, integration and trials.

A key component of the new avionics suite will be an active electronically scanned antenna radar. Saab (formerly Ericsson) Microwave Systems has been working on AESA programs (ELIT, NORA and others) since the 1990s and is currently in the process of selecting a partner for the Demo phase. There are several potentials: it has already acquired a Raytheon AESA antenna to integrate with the back end of the Gripen’s PS-05/A radar and has agreed a deal with Selex Sistemi Integrati and Elettronica to work on a future M-AESA family of radars.

Export Prospects Good
The improvements being applied to Gripen make it even more attractive for prospective customers. While Norway is a Joint Strike Fighter partner and has put some money into the Eurofighter project, on April 26 it signed for a $25 million investment in the Gripen development program. Along with Norway, Denmark is also keenly interested in a Gripen NG version as an alternative to the JSF. Elsewhere in Europe, Gripen International is actively marketing in Bulgaria, Croatia, Greece, Romania and Switzerland. Further afield, opportunities exist in Brazil and Thailand, while the company waits–along with the world’s other fighter manufacturers–for a formal request from India for its 126-aircraft M-MRCA requirement.