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If you have been following the convoluted process of replacing Canada’s aging fleet of CF-188 fighter jets, the continued presence of the Saab Gripen E might seem puzzling in a competition that has seen both Dassault Aviation and Airbus Defence and Space withdraw their entrants.
The Gripen has been mocked as too small by some critics and less capable than the Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II or Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet, the remaining competitors, by others. It’s also, perhaps ironically given the many concerns raised about the F-35, the only fighter still in development and not yet operational.
But to dismiss the single-engine Gripen E as merely a longshot might be a mistake. Because in a project that will be evaluated on capability, cost and economic return to Canada, Saab firmly believes it has a compelling offer to make.
Some of the reasons for that belief became evident when Skies recently toured Saab’s production facilities in Linköping, Sweden, and visited air wings and operational bases where the Gripen C is deployed by the Swedish Air Force and NATO customers to monitor and interdict Russian aircraft skirting, and at times breaching, domestic airspace.
The Gripen was purpose-built for Swedish national defence, but its missions of quick reaction alert (QRA) defensive counter-air along Sweden’s borders and offensive roles during, for example, NATO’s Operation Unified Protector over Libya in 2011, would look familiar to any Canadian CF-188 Hornet pilot. So, too, would the modest defence budget with which it was procured.
And in a Canadian defence procurement system where access to intellectual property (IP) is deemed essential to long-term in-service support and technology upgrades, Saab has demonstrated an approach to foreign sales that can include the wholesale transfer of IP to sustain the aircraft and a commitment to share and invest the knowledge behind that IP with indigenous industry.
To appreciate the strengths of the Gripen, it helps to understand the origins of Saab. An abbreviation for Swedish Aircraft Company, the business is the direct result of an agreement with the Swedish government over 80 years ago to start an aircraft manufacturing company with the sole purpose of being able “to protect Sweden’s borders and people,” explained Jerker Ahlqvist, deputy head of Business Area Aeronautics.
Vastly outnumbered by Russian fighter jets and strategic bombers that reside in Kaliningrad, a short distance from its southern border, Sweden has relied on tactical superiority to achieve combat effectiveness, deploying some of the first datalinks and electronic warfare systems in its fighters, starting with the Saab 35 Draken and more recently the 37 Viggen. That combination of aircraft combat performance, pilot tactics, cost and availability were all baked into the JAS 39 Gripen, said Ahlqvist.
“It is not something you can start to think of once you have designed your fighter.
It needs to be part of the design criteria from the beginning,” he said.
And that philosophy has carried over into the Gripen E, what Ahlqvist called “an even smarter” system of integrated systems. The fighter has two customers at present–Sweden will begin with 60 and Brazil is acquiring 36, eight in the twin-seat F variant–but the aircraft is a contender in at least three fighter replacement competitions globally.
However, unlike the F-16s, F-18s, F-35s and other jets it is up against, the Gripen E is not yet in service. The test program of four aircraft has accumulated over 150 hours, a majority of those in 2019, achieved 9Gs, broken the Gripen speed record in level flight, validated new flight control software, sensors and electronic warfare systems, conducted a test flight with a new electronic attack jammer pod, flown with the MBDA Meteor beyond-visual-range air-to-air missile, and fired the short-range IRIS-T air-to-air missile. Brazil accepted its first flight test aircraft in September and expects to take delivery of its first operational aircraft in 2021.
The enhanced capability of the Gripen E furthers a combat DNA intended to meet an operating environment the Swedish Air Force regards as cluttered, contested, connected, constrained and congested with advanced fighters and air defence systems.
“The Russian QRA behaviour has been changing in the last three to four years. There is more aggressive flying,” explained Col Anders Persson, commander Air Staff.
Russian Sukhoi Su-35, 34 and 27 fighters have frequently flown to within 10 metres of Swedish aircraft in the past 24 months and, in what he said was “a signal to us” earlier this year, a Russian signals intelligence (SIGINT) aircraft escorted by two fighters flew inside Swedish airspace for a minute. “That had never happened before in Swedish airspace. A fighter, yes, a SIGINT, yes, but never a SIGINT escorted.”
A Swedish defence white paper in May concluded Russian capability and activity, in particular electronic warfare (EW), will continue to increase, necessitating investment in superior technology and tactics. “You are superior in technology if you use the technology in the right way,” Persson emphasized.
As with its predecessors, the Gripen E aims to detect and disrupt threats earlier in the kill chain through an improved avionics system that fuses data from an Active Electronically-Scanned Array (AESA) radar system on a swashplate, a passive infrared search and track (IRST) sensor, a tailored datalink and an enhanced EW system, explained Jonas Hjelm, senior vice-president and head of Business Area Aeronautics.
As part of the test program, Saab is trialing what it calls Multi-Functional System EW, part of its Arexis family of airborne EW systems, that incorporates ultra-wideband digital receivers, gallium nitride (GaN) AESA transmitters, digital radio frequency memory (DRFM) devices, precision direction finding and localization, and stealth-enabled countermeasure systems. The onboard signals and data processing are further enhanced by artificial intelligence and machine learning algorithms.
The result is far better situational awareness in the cockpit. Ahlqvist described an OODA (observe, orient, decide, act) loop informed by an electronic support measures system in which the pilot is “quicker to see, quicker to understand, quicker to decide, quicker to act and quicker to adapt. With all the sensors on board, with the data analysis on board … the aircraft will suggest what he should do, so he will be quicker to act.”
Through datalinks, which Saab been developing and employing for over 30 years, “a couple of Gripens can do magic just because of the way the datalink is used,” he said.
While the debate about stealth may feature prominently in the Canadian competition, Saab sees no long-term value in building for short-term stealth. “If you build an airframe with a stealthy design, there are other things you can’t do with that aircraft,” observed Ahlqvist. “We have created another way by, for instance, putting in a very capable electronic warfare system that can make the aircraft invisible.”
“Stealth is much more than the radar cross section,” added Patrick Palmer, executive vice-president and head of Marketing and Sales for Saab Canada. “That is a perishable commodity as technology evolves. Ten years from now, the technology in terms of radar capability will be far more advanced than it is today. What this allows us to do is provide that upgradability, to be forever responding to whatever those new threats are.”
Instead, the goal for the Gripen is to be a “true multi-function aircraft in all aspects,” said Persson. As adversaries advance anti-access/area denial weapon systems and their own stealth capabilities, EW and datalinks for passive sensing and silent networking are an operational necessity to share target information between aircraft. “As soon as we take off, the jamming [from Russia] starts,” he said.
Those onboard systems are “a huge difference maker” for the multi-function Gripen E, said Mikael Olsson, Saab’s chief test pilot. “It is purposely designed for what you see around Sweden (such as the Russian S-400 anti-aircraft system in Kaliningrad). That is what it is designed to counter.”
Saab is “building the aircraft around the pilot,” observed BGen Csaba Ugrik, commander of Hungary’s recent Baltic NATO air policing mission in Lithuania, of the systems and human-machine interface in the cockpit. Based at Šiauliai Air Base, Hungary served as lead nation for a three-month rotation from May through August, operating five JAS 39 Gripen C and D aircraft, augmented by Spanish F-18s and United Kingdom Eurofighter Typhoons at Ämari Air Base in Estonia.
Over that time, the Hungarians conducted more than 400 sorties, over 40 of which were actual (Alpha) scrambles in response to Russian Tupolov, Antonov and Sukhoi transports, bombers and fighters, including the Tupolev Tu-142 maritime reconnaissance and anti-submarine warfare aircraft, transiting to Kaliningrad or flying over the Baltic Sea. “If they don’t want to see us too close to the aircraft, they are doing manoeuvres,” he noted.
Consequently, the Gripen Link 16 datalink was critical to ensuring situational awareness. “If you are running the APU here and you turn on the Link 16, you will have the information already on the ground, and you can move the maps and see what is going on 300 kilometres away… and you can prepare for the fight,” he said. “That is a good advantage of the aircraft.”
Capt David Szentiendrei, a graduate of the NATO Flying Training in Canada program in 2012, said the Gripen worked well with non-NATO fighters and excelled at maintaining and sharing situational information fused from its sensor suite.
Both Airbus and Dassault withdrew from the Canadian fighter competition citing, in part, their concerns about the NORAD security requirements and the need for Two Eyes (United States and Canada) interoperability. Though Sweden is not a member of NATO, Saab has designed the Gripen to meet Sweden’s requirement to be fully interoperable with NATO, and in particular with the U.S., working on same or similar datalinks. “We have our own mission planning but the data format transfers into the NATO system,” said Persson.
With the technology behind onboard sensor systems poised to change almost as rapidly as the applications in a smartphone, Saab has attempted to “future proof” the Gripen by designing the avionics “in such a way where the software is more or less hardware independent,” said Ahlqvist. “The threat environment changes quickly and you will need to make changes in a much faster way then you have done in the past. Gripen E allows for that.”
By separating the hardware layer from the software layer, and the flight critical applications from the mission critical or tactical, “we are ready for novel algorithms like artificial intelligence in the future,” explained Johan Segertoft of Saab, noting that even in the development phase of the E model, multiple software changes were required because computing power improved during that span.
“This is a major problem in a fighter jet,” he observed, adding that the exponential increases in computing power make it difficult to predict how technology will be affected. “Computer power translates to tactical power…[T]he key is how you harness the evolution of computing power.”
The separation of church and state also means that every change no longer requires re-testing and certification. “The vision was, program in the morning, fly in the afternoon,” he added. “You can code once and deploy everywhere. We can now do a change in a matter of days.”
From the outset, Saab built the Gripen E with international customers in mind. And it has demonstrated a willingness to transfer technology in a manner that might seem unusual to some. Besides Sweden, four countries currently operate the Gripen C — South Africa, Czech Republic, Hungary and Thailand (the U.K. Empire Test Pilots’ School also uses the platform). But as the first foreign customer for the Gripen E, Brazil provides an interesting case study on how that technology and knowledge transfer could work.
“One of the aspects that makes us unique is our willingness and ability to share technology,” said Mikael Franzén, vice-president and head of the Gripen Brazil business unit. “We understand the importance of national industry and national independence.”
Saab has recognized IP without knowledge has limited value. Under a “train the trainer” model over a 10-year period, 350 professionals from local partner companies and the Brazilian Air Force will receive theoretical and on-the-job training in Sweden for anywhere from six months to two years. Already, over 190 Brazilians have completed their technology transfer program and are now working on teams in the Gripen Design and Development Network.
The offer to Canada would be similar, said Palmer. “This illustrates what the realm of the possible is. In the case of Brazil, they had a very specific focus in terms of what they wanted to accomplish from a [technology transfer] perspective … [We] will be completely responsive to the RFP. We have been working with suppliers and partners in Canada for the last 24 months or so, and we will have a very attractive proposition.”
He acknowledged that one of the strengths of the current CF-188 sustainment program was early engagement with Canadian industry and access to IP. “Our vision is to have companies and capability early in the process so that you don’t have this huge wall at the end where you are not able to get over it.”
Whether that willingness to transfer critical IP negates any of the concerns raised by the NORAD security requirements remains to be seen. But Palmer said Two Eyes interoperability is not a technical issue, but rather a process and procedure challenge. “We see it more as where is that data going, what is it touching, who has access to it, and how is that controlled.”
No discussion of fighter jets would be complete without an attempt to pin down costs. Comparing price tags is problematic because different companies and countries often use different metrics to define unit flyaway costs, cost per flight hour and long-term sustainment. Saab officials were coy about an exact number, but the sale of 36 Gripen E/F aircraft to Brazil, including related systems, support and equipment, was valued at around US$4.5 billion.
“I think it is a fact that we are the most cost-efficient solution,” said Eddy De La Motte, vice-president and head of the Gripen E/F business unit. “That goes both for acquisition and flight hour costs.”
If there is a feature Saab hopes might intrigue Canadians, it’s the Gripen’s ability to operate in Arctic conditions. Sweden’s most northern air base is above the Arctic Circle, so the Gripen “was designed from the beginning to cope with very cold conditions and to be operated with no hangars in open airfields, short takeoff and landing on ordinary roads, even in winter time,” said Ahlqvist.
It’s an operating concept that has been in place since the country first introduced fighter jets. In fact, the Gripen can operate from an 800-metre road that is just 17 metres wide, and can be refuelled, rearmed and checked in under 10 minutes by a team of five conscript soldiers and a technician. More impressive, with just a few more personnel, a small team can replace an engine in one hour in the same frigid conditions.
And it is something that the Swedish air force regularly trains. “Every time we have an exercise, we [operate] on dispersed basing,” assured Persson.
Chris Thatcher is an aerospace, defence and technology writer, editor of RCAF Today, and a regular contributor to Skies.