Gripen Keeps Watch Over Libya

 - June 27, 2011, 5:45 AM
A Gripen refuels over the Mediterranean before heading to Libya. It carries a Litening targeting pod, the Saab SPK 39 reconnaissance pod and Iris-T missiles.

Since April 22 the Swedish air force Gripens have been conducting operations over Libya as part of the NATO response to UNSCR 1973. Sweden already maintained a unit of eight aircraft on a deployment alert for the Nordic Battle Group, and it was these aircraft that were sent to Sigonella in Sicily. They arrived within 23 hours of the parliamentary approval for the operation, their participation being sponsored by full NATO member Denmark.

“It’s the first time in 50 years we have been involved [in operations] with fighters,” Major General Anders Silwer, Swedish air force chief, told AIN. “We have been prepared for this for a long time. Initially the aircraft were just performing DCA [defensive counter air], but when NATO realized we had a very capable reconnaissance pod we started flying that mission, and now that is around 90 percent of what we are doing.”

Sweden’s Parliament has approved operations until at least September 27, although the number of deployed Gripens is to be reduced to five, albeit with the same overall level of effort. At the same time, some restrictions on the kind of missions that can be flown are lifted, resulting in what Silwer describes as “non-caveat recce” missions. Supporting the detachment is a deployed, reconnaissance-interpretation cell, which has received considerable praise for the quality of its intelligence product.

The Swedes have integrated smoothly into the overall NATO force. The only major hiccup was arriving at Sigonella to discover that the U.S. Navy kept only a stock of JP-5 fuel, whereas the Gripens require JP-8. A plan to move fuel from nearby Catania air base was thwarted by a lack of fuel tenders, so one was sent from Sweden to rectify the problem.

During their missions Gripen pilots have refueled from the four types of tanker that they are currently cleared for, including the French C-135FR, but when the asset was in theater they operated mostly with the single Swedish air force C-130 tanker. This aircraft has recently returned to Sweden to allow the training of pilots in advance of a rotation due in early next month.

“Overall we are very happy with the operation,” concluded Silwer. “It’s an important step forward for us.”