Around the end of the year Saab expects to fly the new Gripen E for the first time. The latest generation of the Swedish warplane represents a major enhancement in capabilities and a thorough overhaul of every element of the basic design. Following on from the Gripen Demo technology demonstrator that has been testing various elements of the new fighter for some time, the first new-build Gripen E was rolled out at Linköping on May 18 and is now in the hands of the flight test team preparing for its first flight.
Known to Saab as 39-8, the first aircraft is one of three pre-production test aircraft authorized by the Swedish government. While the first aircraft is to concentrate initially on aircraft systems and aerodynamics trials, the second aircraft, 39-9, is due to fly next year with some tactical systems installed. The third test aircraft is to join the test fleet in 2019 with a representative IOC (initial operating capability) fit and software load, known as MS (mission system) 21. Saab is also working on the follow-on MS22, which adds greater functionality.
Series production of the first batch of 96 Gripen Es for Sweden (60) and Brazil (36) is already underway. The initial production aircraft is scheduled to be for Brazil. It is being built in Sweden and will be used to test the Brazil-specific elements of the system. Thanks to the increased use of ground-based test rigs performing much of the work, Saab estimates that the amount of flight time required to clear the Gripen E is roughly one-third that needed for the Gripen C/D.
Development of the Gripen E comes at a time when Sweden has opted to increase its defense spending in the light of increasing tension in the Baltic region. As well as this increase in capability, the focus of Sweden’s attention has shifted from overseas multi-national operations to national and regional defense.
Sweden faces the threat of a new generation of Russian aircraft and missiles in the Baltic. To maintain a credible counter the Gripen E introduces increased range and endurance, better communications and electronic warfare suite, AESA radar, longer-ranged and ‘smarter’ weapons, lower signature and impressive sensor fusion. “It’s important to have equipment designed for the Nordic environment,” Peter Hultqvist, Sweden’s defense minister, told AIN. “It’s necessary for us to invest in a new generation of JAS Gripens. We need a higher level of capability in these aircraft.”
These features are being introduced to “overcome numerical inferiority” according to Major General Mats Helgesson, chief of the Swedish air force. “Through the use of good technology and tactics we will prevail in the air war.”
Sweden expects to receive its first Gripen E in 2019, leading to an IOC standard in 2021 and the air force’s six current JAS 39C/D squadrons converting between 2023 and 2026. The first squadron is likely to be one of the two based at F7 Såtenäs, the home of the Gripen training center. Having operated as training units for some time, F7’s two squadrons were brought into to the front-line at the start of the year.
Sweden has ordered 60 Gripen E single-seaters, which will replace around 100 JAS 39C/Ds, leveraging the significant additional capability of the new aircraft to offset the decrease in numbers. With Russian saber-rattling in the Baltic showing little sign of abating, some Swedish politicians have called for an increase in the Gripen E purchase. “There is always debate around the size and number,” remarked Hultqvist. “If we need more then that will be a new decision.”
Brazil and Beyond
Saab achieved its first export success for the Gripen NG with a sale to Brazil of 36 aircraft, comprising 28 Gripen E single-seaters and eight Gripen F two-seaters. Illustrating Saab’s ability to transfer technology, Brazilian industry is playing a major role not only in the production of Brazil’s aircraft, but also in the development of the two-seater and other variants, such as the proposed Sea Gripen carrier version.
With an eventual Brazilian requirement that could reach 100 aircraft, and the possibility of sales to other nations in Latin America, the establishment of a production facility in Brazil in conjunction with Embraer was a natural move. The operation is centered on Gavião Peixoto, where a development and flight test center are being established alongside production facilities.
Saab is also offering the Gripen NG to India as part of the ‘Make in India’ initiative. Under the proposal Saab would include transfer of state-of-the-art technology, the establishment of an aerospace cluster including a manufacturing facility, the creation of a local supplier base, and the employment of a well-trained Indian workforce for engineering and manufacturing.
“We believe that there is an opportunity for us with the MRCA [Rafale] program being limited to 36 aircraft,” said Saab’s head of Gripen, Jerker Ahlqvist. “There’s a need for a large number of fighters over five years as the MiGs are phased out. We would use Brazil as a model for technology transfer, although India is potentially much bigger.”
A number of other nations are being targeted as potential customers for Gripen NG. Finland is viewed as a major opportunity as it looks for a Hornet successor. Sweden has formed increasingly close defense ties with Finland in recent times, and the advantages of having a common fighter type are seen as being potentially attractive.
Elsewhere in Europe the Gripen NG is competing in Belgium, and Saab believes that the Swiss requirement, for which the Gripen was initially selected, will be revived. Saab is still marketing the current C/D model strongly, with prospects in a number of nations. Slovakia is the closest to a decision with a requirement for eight aircraft. With the Czech Republic and Hungary already operating the Gripen C/D, Saab notes that with additional operators in the region the establishment of a training and technical support center in central Europe would make good sense.
New-look Gripen C/D
Recognizing that it will be some while until Gripen NG is available for deliveries, and that there are many nations that do not require the new version’s expanded capabilities, Saab continues to develop the current JAS 39C/D version. In late April the latest software version, MS20, was released for Swedish service, and it is being rolled out across the six-squadron fleet over the summer.
MS20 brings with it a host of new features, not least of which is the ability to operate with the MBDA Meteor long-range air-to-air missile, significantly enhancing the aircraft’s beyond-visual-range air combat capabilities. Another important weapons enhancement is the ability to carry the GBU-39 small diameter bomb, giving the aircraft a low-collateral damage precision attack capability. Other MS20 features include improved Link 16 datalink, a second datalink for digital close air support, night reconnaissance capability, improved CBRN characteristics, and logistics/maintenance improvements.
Saab is keen to stress the speed with which new-build Gripen C/Ds could be delivered, claiming a lead time of just 18 months from contract signature. The company has also pledged to maintain development of the C/D, drawing in elements from the NG program as and when applicable. Saab’s president and CEO, Håkan Buskhe, concluded that: “If you don’t have the need for endurance, the C/D is a very good fighter.”