Gripen NG matures and waits for India
Sweden is advancing its own Gripen development path alongside that of the Gripen Next Generation aircraft intended for export, which is currently awaiting the outcome of major competitions in Brazil and India. The Swedish air force is now talking openly about a JAS 39E/F version that would draw on many of the technologies being applied to the NG program.
In the shorter term, in March Saab received a contract worth around $256 million from the Swedish defense material administration (FMV) for an upgrade package that will improve countermeasures and communications, integrate new weapons such as the Meteor (the acquisition of which was recently approved by the Swedish government) and provide extra range and functions to the Gripen’s PS-05/A radar. It also includes measures to reduce operational costs, based on experience from the 130,000 flying hours achieved with the Gripen fleet.
This contract helps define the Gripen’s Material System 20 as part of the rolling capability sustainment program that is in force for the type. Shortly after this deal was done, Saab received another commission to expand the capabilities of the aircraft’s SPK 39 reconnaissance system. This enhances night capability and user interface, and will also allow the Gripen to feed imagery into the sensor source intelligence cells being produced to support the country’s new Shadow 200 unmanned air vehicles.
Saab already has the next major iteration in its sights. The MS21 version is to include a major review of the aircraft’s avionics system, including computers and displays, with the accent placed on handling vastly increased amounts of information at differing security classification levels. The architecture will also to be able to handle new types of sensors.
It is evident that the MS21 will become the JAS 39E/F, and that it will be based closely on the AESA-equipped Gripen NG. Although the exact nature of an “MS21 Gripen” has yet to be defined, it will almost certainly incorporate the more powerful General Electric F414G engine. An avionics development contract was awarded to Saab in May and is expected to lead to a concept evaluation review later this year. Preliminary design reviews will be undertaken next year, leading to full development starting in 2012.
Sweden expects to have the JAS 39E/F in service by around 2017, although it has committed to bring that date forward if Brazil adopts the Gripen so that the customer does not shoulder the burden of fielding a major new version on its own.
Development of what is now known as the Gripen NG began around 2004, a year before the JAS 39C/D achieved IOC. Predictions of airpower requirements for the 2015-2020 time frame suggested the need for new sensors, greater range and larger warloads. After analysis of other options, it was concluded that a developed Gripen NG could meet the requirements, with technology to be demonstrated in a “Demo” aircraft that would also become a de facto prototype for the NG. Initial estimates put the cost at approximately $230 million but that was considered too high, leading to the formation of an industrial partnership that cut the costs by 60 percent. In fact, the Gripen Demo came in some 15 percent below that budget.
The Gripen Demo technology demonstration program has been conducted in two phases and involves a flying demonstrator and an avionics rig. Phase 1 flight tests got under way with a first flight on May 27, 2008, during which the extensively modified two-seater validated the aerodynamic changes caused by moving the main undercarriage to under the wingroots, the addition of underfuselage pylons, new drop tanks and the installation of the uprated General Electric F414G engine. Phase 1 was completed after 79 flights.
Phase 2 introduced further modifications to the aircraft, including extra fuel capacity and, most importantly, installation of a development version of the Selex/Saab ES-05 Raven AESA radar. This phase was brought to a conclusion this February after a further 73 flights. During the initial Demo campaign, all goals were achieved, including a Mach 1.6-plus speed and a supercruise (non-afterburning) capability of greater than Mach 1.2.
Following the end of official Phase 2 trials, the Gripen Demo aircraft continued development work, but in May was dispatched to India in support of Saab’s entry in the country’s MMRCA multi-role fighter competition. MMRCA envisions the acquisition of 126 aircraft, with the first 18 to be built by the original manufacturer, followed by a stepped transition to Indian production. Saab is pitching its Gripen NG against the Boeing F/A-18E/F, Dassault Rafale, Eurofighter Typhoon, Lockheed Martin F-16IN and the Mikoyan MiG-35.
Although Saab had already demonstrated the JAS 39C/D in India in March (20 evaluation flights), and Indian pilots had flown the Gripen Demo in Sweden during April, the demonstrator deployed to India for an in-country evaluation. Earlier it had been announced that ongoing test work would mean the Gripen Demo was unavailable to make the trip. This was widely seen as being detrimental to the Gripen bid’s cause and resulted in a reversal of the decision. Routing via Kecskemet in Hungary, Athens, Hurghada in Egypt, Riyadh and the United Arab Emirates, the Demo aircraft and its Raven AESA radar arrived in India in late May.
During its stay, the Gripen Demo flew eight evaluation sorties, including in-flight refueling from an Ilyushin Il-78 tanker and operations from Leh. Located in disputed Jammu and Kashmir, close to the scene of the 1999 Kargil war, Leh is of strategic value to India but, at 10,826 feet elevation, is one of the world’s highest airfields. The Gripen Demo operated with ease from the base, and performed well in other trials. According to Eddy de la Motte, Saab’s India campaign director, “We are confident that this aircraft meets, or exceeds, every operational requirement raised by the Indian Air Force.”
The return to Sweden of the Demo aircraft brought to an end the MMRCA flying evaluation phase. Meanwhile, the final bid deadline has been extended a year, allowing some of the competitors to refine their proposals. It is expected that the technical evaluation will initially produce a down-select to three competitors, after which the politics are likely to become an increasing factor.
Politics have certainly played their part in the Brazilian FX2 new fighter competition, in which the Gripen is pitched against the Rafale and Super Hornet. In September last year President Lula announced the selection of the Rafale, but at the time of writing there is no sign of a contract.
An interesting aside to the Brazilian and Indian deals is the proposal by Saab of a Sea Gripen, as both countries have aircraft carriers. Developed initially to meet Sweden’s stringent dispersed short-field operations doctrine, the Gripen already possesses many of the characteristics required in a carrier-borne aircraft. Modifications for sea-going operations are said to be relatively straightforward, but Saab has signaled that it would pursue this avenue further only if Brazil or India signed up for the Gripen NG.