Hungary to Upgrade Saab Gripen Fighters

 - January 12, 2022, 6:32 AM
A Hungarian Gripen fighter undertakes a routine air defense patrol with live AIM-120 AMRAAM and AIM-9M Sidewinder air-to-missiles. (Photo: Saab)

The Hungarian government and Sweden’s FMV defense materiel administration have concluded negotiations over the upgrade of Hungary’s leased Saab JAS 39C/D Gripen fighters to the latest Mission System (MS) 20 Block 2 configuration. Under the deal—announced by Saab on January 12—the aircraft will receive enhancements to sensors and communications, as well as expanded weapons options.

Improvements to the PS-05/A Mk 4 radar increase the sensor’s air-to-air target tracking range, as well as other performance improvements. They include better clutter suppression and enhanced detection capability against small aerial targets. The radar also offers growth potential for additional air-to-air and air-to-ground modes. MS20 Block 2 also enhances the functionality of the NATO-standard Link 16 datalink and updates voice communication to the latest NATO secure standard. In addition, the upgrade introduces the latest Mode 5 identification friend or foe (IFF) standard.

The modernization program also opens up three new weapons to Hungary’s Gripens: the GBU-49 Enhanced Paveway II dual-mode (laser, GPS/inertial) guided bomb, the IRIS-T within visual range air-to-air missile, and the long-range MBDA Meteor. Hungary ordered the IRIS-T in December to replace the current AIM-9M Sidewinder, the European missile offering significant engagement envelope improvements, as well as better flare rejection performance. It has a longer range against head-on targets thanks to better target discrimination, and its thrust-vectoring nozzle and lock-on after launch capability allow it to engage targets behind the launch aircraft, turning at rates of up to 60° per second with 60g loads.

“Thanks to the modernization of the Hungarian Gripen aircraft, the operational capabilities of the Hungarian Air Force will be significantly increased,” said Major General Nandor Kilian, Hungarian Defence Forces Air Force Inspector. “Our staff has appreciated a close and fruitful cooperation with the Swedish side on this specific modernization project as well as the cooperation during the 15 years that we have operated Gripen aircraft.”

Hungary signed a contract in November 2001 to lease 12 JAS 39A single-seaters and two JAS 39B two-seaters from Sweden, for service with 1. Vadászrepülö Század “Puma” at the 59th Tactical Fighter Wing at Kecskemét. The deal was subsequently amended to JAS 39C/D aircraft, and the first five arrived in Hungary in March 2006. The "Puma" squadron's primary mission is the air defense of Hungarian airspace. In 2014 Hungarian Gripens also began defending Slovenian airspace, and were responsible for NATO’s Baltic air policing detachment in Latvia in 2015 and 2019. In May/June 2015 two Gripens were written off in non-fatal crashes but were replaced by more aircraft from Sweden.

Having examined the option of buying the aircraft outright in 2011, Hungary decided to extend the lease contract to 20 years in January 2012. In February 2017 the deal was amended to increase the annual flight time allowance from 1,600 to 2,000 hours. At the same time, the commitment to upgrade the aircraft to MS20 was also made. The latest upgrade deal signals the intention of Hungary to extend its lease beyond the current end date in March 2026.