On Thursday last week Saab conducted the maiden flight of its new-generation Gripen E. Test pilot Marcus Wandt lifted off from the Saab plant at Linköping at 10:32 local time for a 40-minute flight during which handling was assessed. Wandt initially kept the undercarriage down while a simulated approach and go-around was conducted, before the gear was raised and the aircraft’s handling assessed in combat mode.
Thursday’s flight followed earlier high-speed taxi trials during which speeds of over 100 knots were achieved. Wandt reported that during the trip the flight control system performed “as expected”.
Under the initial flight test schedule the Gripen E was intended to make its first flight by the end of last year. Saab (Chalet 379) has stressed that the six-month delay in flying the prototype was not due to any technical difficulties. Instead, the company decided to revise its test plan and delay the beginning of flight trials until the aircraft’s innovative avionics architecture had been fully qualified. Employing a concept known as DIMA (distributed integrated modular avionics), the Gripen E’s avionics segregate flight-critical functions from non-critical applications.
Clearing the architecture before flight should speed the test program as new functionality can be added and tested without having to be re-qualified as successive iterations of the basic architecture are introduced. Based on RTCA 1788/C civilian standards, the DIMA avionics architecture allows developers to concentrate on software functions without having to take into account how they might affect the aircraft’s systems–in much the same way as app developers can plug in functionality to smartphones. Not only does this speed the pace of initial development, but in the future it will permit the rapid insertion of new technology and functionality without the need to re-qualify flight-critical systems every time.
Throughout its life the Gripen system has been updated through a series of iterative upgrades as part of the MS (material system) program. The first Gripen E (aircraft 39-8) is intended for air vehicle and structural tests, and is flying with a version of the current Gripen C/D’s MS20 software, along with test instrumentation in the cockpit. For now, many of the aircraft’s intended mission systems are being tested in the Gripen Demo technology demonstrator (aircraft 39-7), but the two subsequent trials aircraft (39-9 and 39-10) will take on system development work.
First deliveries of production aircraft are due in 2019. Initial aircraft for Sweden will have the MS21 software load that provides a basic air-to-air fighter capability, but by the end of 2023 the first true multi-role squadron with the full-specification MS22 software is scheduled to become operational. The Swedish air force plans to have all six of its fighter squadrons operating 60 Gripen Es with MS22 by 2026.
There are still many decisions to take as to what the Swedish Gripen E will look like, particularly with regard to the cockpit. One agency that is playing a major part is the air force’s TU JAS (Gripen OT&E–operational test and evaluation) unit at Malmen air base, which represents the end-user in discussions with government and industry.
Working with Saab and the FMV, the TU JAS unit has not only provided input to the test and development programs, but is also planning the training syllabus and how the aircraft will be brought into service. Tactical concepts such as the use of austere war bases is being studied, and also how to employ the Gripen C and Gripen E together tactically. The unit’s pilots have already spent time flying the Gripen E test rig as part of an ongoing operational evaluation program, with all this experience being fed back into the development process to fine-tune the aircraft that will be delivered to operational squadrons. TU JAS is also helping to define the roadmap for further Gripen E development, with MS23 already in the project definition stage.
While the focus of attention is naturally on the Gripen E/F, Saab continues to promote the current Gripen C/D and is, in effect, offering a two-product fighter range. Last year the MS20 standard became operational with the Swedish air force’s C/Ds, bringing with it the capability to launch the MBDA Meteor long-range air-to-air missile, which is now being employed in exercises. The extra capabilities of the weapon have required the development of new tactics by TU JAS. Both the Czech Republic and Hungary have signed up for the MS20 update for their Gripen C/Ds.
As well as the improvements introduced by MS20, Saab continues to explore further developments for both the C/D and E/F in terms of weapon, sensor and self-protection options. Earlier this year the company received a contract to begin the development of a new generation of its RBS 15 anti-ship missile to enter service in the mid-2020s on the Gripen E. The new version will offer a much longer range than the current weapon, and many other enhancements.
While the Gripen E/F is seen as satisfying the requirements of air arms who are looking for high-performance aircraft to perform advanced mission types, the Gripen C/D is aimed more at small air forces that require modern multi-role fighters yet face considerable budgetary constraints. The C/D’s low acquisition and operating costs are seen as strong discriminators in this market segment, in which new-build aircraft face competition from cheap-to-acquire second-hand aircraft.
Furthermore, Saab is highlighting the rapidity with which new Gripen C/Ds can be delivered, promising an 18-month turnaround from contract signature to delivery. To help meet that promise and give the company some competitive edge, Saab has initiated some long-lead items for future C/D production. While this falls far short of building “white-tail” aircraft, the company has “started essential work to shorten delivery times” for these models.
Such investment may be well placed, for it is new-build C/Ds that represent the best short-term opportunities for Gripen sales, notably in three countries. Slovakia has a pressing need to replace its Russian MiG-29s and has been talking to Saab since 2015, with a new request being issued last fall. Saab has proposed a full package including the training of pilots and technicians, and highlights NATO interoperability and the good experience of the Gripen with Slovakia’s neighbor, the Czech Republic. Gripen C/D is competing in Slovakia with ex-Portuguese Lockheed Martin F-16s and surplus Tranche 1 Eurofighter Typhoons.
If Gripen is selected in Slovakia it will strengthen the aircraft’s presence in central Europe, and increases the possibility of the establishment of a maintenance facility in the region. One nation that could benefit is Bulgaria, which is also urgently seeking a MiG-29 replacement. An RFP (request for proposals) was issued in December last year, to which Saab responded with a full Gripen C/D package. The Bulgarian air force announced in April that Gripen was its preferred choice.
A third near-term strong prospect is Botswana, where discussions are ongoing following a response from the Swedish government to an RFP issued in December. In Botswana the Gripen is competing against the KAI FA-50 for an aircraft to replace ageing Northrop F-5s. If selected, Saab would provide training plus initial logistics support and maintenance for the African country’s air force.
For the Gripen E/F there are two major opportunities in Europe. Sweden’s neighbor and increasingly close defense ally Finland has a requirement for between 48 and 60 aircraft to replace its Boeing F-18 Hornet fleet. The program is at the RFI (request for information) stage and the Gripen E is seen as ideal for the kind of advanced missions that the Finnish air force is seeking to undertake. The synergies of operating the same type of aircraft as Sweden in an increasingly integrated defense network are also part of the Gripen E’s attraction.
Belgium is at the RFP stage for 30 to 40 aircraft and the Gripen E is being bid against Super Hornet, Rafale, Typhoon and the Lockheed Martin F-35. Switzerland is another prospect: while the Gripen was previously selected by the Swiss air force—before a public referendum rejected the proposed purchase of new fighters—the requirement still remains and is growing more urgent. It is probably only a matter of time before the Swiss air force embarks on a new procurement program, and one that is likely to encompass more than the 22 aircraft of the previous failed acquisition.
Arguably the most exciting prospect for the Gripen, however, lies in India, which is seeking a MiG-21 replacement that can be built in the country. The defense ministry has specified a single-engined design, which effectively leaves the
Gripen pitted against the F-16. In support of its bid Saab has highlighted the success of technology transfer associated with the Brazilian Gripen program, as well as intimating the part India could play in further development, such as that of Saab’s own gallium nitride AESA fighter radar.
Elsewhere in the world Saab is watching events in Canada closely, where the Trudeau government has signaled an intention to buy the Boeing Super Hornet as an interim fighter while delaying a definitive decision on what should replace its legacy Hornet fleet. However, the Super Hornet buy has not yet been contracted and has recently come under close scrutiny. For Saab an interim buy could be seen as playing into the hands of the Gripen E/F, as a delayed decision could suit the delivery timescale better.
Other prospects for Gripen include Colombia, which is looking to replace its IAI Kfirs; Malaysia, which has been evaluating Gripen, Typhoon, Rafale and Super Hornet for some years; and the Philippines, which has a requirement for a multi-role fighter. Indonesia also has a requirement for an F-5 replacement, for which Typhoon, Gripen and F-16 are bidding as an alternative to the Sukhoi Su-35. Saab has suggested that it could install an assembly line at PTDI’s Bandung facility as part of its proposal, which could also include AEW aircraft in a package similar to that delivered to Thailand.
Brazil has ordered 36 Gripen E/Fs and its aerospace industry is playing a key role in the new-generation aircraft. Embraer is leading the Brazilian consortium and major components of the aircraft such as front and rear fuselage sections, wing box, tailcone and airbrake are to be built at the Saab Aeronautica Montagens (SAM) facility at São Bernardo do Campo. A final assembly center is being completed at Gavião Peixoto, where the GDDN (Gripen Design and Development Network) was inaugurated last November. Other Brazilian companies involved include AEL Sistemas, Akaer, Atech, Atmos, DCTA and Inbra Aerospace.
Development activities being conducted in Brazil are centered around the Gripen F two-seater, for which a joint Saab-Embraer team has been formed at the GDDN. Brazil is also responsible for the proposed Gripen
Maritime carrier-capable version, for which a feasibility study is part of the technology offset program.
Much of the cockpit development is being carried out in Brazil, with Elbit subsidiary AEL Sistemas leading the effort. Brazil has specified a cockpit layout with a single wide screen, and a version of the Elbit Targo helmet-mounted display. Sweden has yet to decide if it will go for the wide screen or employ a cockpit similar to that found in the Gripen C/D, with three large color multifunction displays.
To meet the specified delivery schedule, assembly of the first Gripens for Brazil will be conducted in Sweden, but this activity will then transfer to Gavião Peixoto so that more than 20 of the 36 aircraft will be assembled in-country. Indeed, the first production aircraft from the Linköping line is for Brazil. Scheduled to enter final assembly later this year, and to fly in 2019, it will remain in Sweden on test duties for some months.
The Gavião Peixoto facility will also undertake flight test activities in a center that mirrors that at Linköping. Plans for a Brazilian test program of between 500 and 900 flights are already being put together, with flying scheduled to begin in Brazil in 2020.
Reporting on the program, Brigadier General Bonotto, president of Brazil’s procurement agency COPAC, noted: “We are on schedule. Although we have had a financial crisis in Brazil, Gripen is our priority. For 20 years we have been waiting for a new fighter, and now we are really close.”
Brazil has stated a requirement for more aircraft following the initial batch of 36, with a number of around 100 having been mentioned. “We have a number in mind, but after we have seen the capabilities of the aircraft that number may change,” said Bonotto, referring to the considerable jump in capability between Gripen E/F and the aircraft it is to replace. “It’s difficult [to assess] with old aircraft like the F-5 and AMX whether we swap them one-for-one. That’s why we don’t have the answer now.”