Saab unveiled the first example of the Gripen E multi-role fighter in a lavish ceremony at Linköping on May 18. The new aircraft, which represents a complete overhaul of the Gripen design, appears at a time when Sweden is seeking to strengthen its defensive capabilities in the face of increasing tensions in the Baltic region, which have created a shift in defense policy away from international operations back to national and regional interests.
Compared with the JAS 39C/D, the Gripen E includes a more powerful General Electric F414 engine, while a relocation of the main undercarriage not only provides room for more internal fuel but also creates space for two additional weapons pylons. The aircraft’s systems are all new, including a Finmeccanica-Leonardo (formerly Selex ES) Raven AESA radar and infrared search and track sensor.
Although not visible, arguably the biggest change comes under the skin, in the shape of an innovative integrated modular avionics architecture. Of the millions of lines of code in the aircraft’s 40 computers, only around 10 percent are flight-critical, and these functions have been separated from those for mission purposes. This allows updates and changes for operational purposes to be done at lower cost and with time savings. Not only does this provide for the quick insertion of new technology to meet emerging threats and tactical requirements, but it also allows customers to adapt the aircraft to their needs.
Saab has also addressed the issue of production and development costs by introducing a model-based systems engineering and definition approach. This significantly enhances production accuracy and minimizes the probability of design changes that might be encountered during testing.
Sweden is procuring 60 single-seat Gripen Es for its air force, preceded by three test aircraft. The first, 39-8, is expected to make its first flight around the end of the year and will initially be used for aircraft systems and aerodynamic tests. A second machine, 39-9, is due to fly next year with some tactical systems, and 39-10 should fly in 2019 with full systems. The flight-test program is expected to require approximately one-third of the flight hours needed by the JAS 39C/D, due to much of the functionality being tested thoroughly in ground-based rigs.
A fourth test aircraft is being built for Brazil, one of 28 Gripen NG single-seaters for the nation, which is also to acquire eight two-seaters. Embraer and Saab are creating production and test facilities in Brazil, which is seen as ultimately having a requirement for around 100 aircraft. Saab has also proposed the Gripen for local production in India.
Full series production will see aircraft being delivered from 2019, and those aircraft are already in the early stages of production. Initially aircraft will be delivered with the Mission System 21 software edition, which is the baseline Gripen E/NG load. Additional functionality will be added soon after with MS22. Initial operating capability for the Swedish air force is scheduled for 2023, and all six fighter squadrons are planned to be operational with the aircraft by 2026. They will completely replace the approximately 90 JAS 39C/D that currently serve in Sweden.
Concurrently, Saab continues to heavily promote the C/D version to nations that do not require the full capabilities of the Gripen E/F. The company continues to develop these versions, including the likelihood of future insertion of some technologies from the Gripen E/F. Saab has already announced a considerable performance upgrade for the C/D’s PS-05 mechanically scanned radar.
At the end of April the latest software load, MS20, was released to service by the FMV, and this is now being introduced to the Swedish air force Gripen fleet. With MS20 installed the JAS 39C/D becomes the first aircraft to be capable of operations with the MBDA Meteor long-range anti-aircraft missile. The aircraft also gains Boeing GBU-39 small diameter bomb capability, as well as night reconnaissance capability, improvements to Link 16 connectivity and a second datalink for close support operations. Saab claims that it can deliver a C/D within 18 months of ordering.