6th Generation Swede: The Saab Gripen E

 

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Is the Gripen E too good to be true? Hushkit met Richard Smith the Head of Marketing & Sales for the Saab Gripen to find out more. 

When I interviewed the widely respected aviation journalist Bill Sweetman in 2013, I pointed out the Typhoon, F-22 and F-35 programmes have all received a great deal of criticism, but could he give an example of a well-run military aircraft project? He replied: “Almost anything from the land of blondes, aquavit and IKEA.”

In an article Sweetman wrote for Aviation Week he argued that there the case for describing the forthcoming Gripen E/F as the first sixth generation fighter. Whereas fifth generation was an old (1980s) concept based on the use of stealth and superior situational awareness to defeat a well-equipped (but easy to find and identify) enemy, Saab’s vision of 6th Gen Gripen E is a new kind of machine that puts kinematics second, and software and ISR capabilities first. What ‘software first’ means is that the all important software in Gripen E should be far easier to upgrade than in rival platforms. This is a big deal, as military aircraft technology currently moves at a glacial pace compared to that of the commercial world, such as the rapid developments in smart phones. The conventional approach would have been to produce a higher performance lower-observable fighter, a programme which would have proved too expensive for Sweden. As Sweetman put it in the Aviation Week article, “The requirements were deliberately constrained because the JAS 39E is intended to cost less to develop, build and operate than the JAS 39C, despite doing almost everything better.”

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While the aircraft will not have the stealth and super-cruising abilities of the F-22, the super-manoeuvrability of the Su-35 or impressive weapons-carrying performance of the Rafale, the Gripen E will be an extremely potent aircraft punching well above its weight. Weight and cost often correlate for military aircraft and it is interesting to note that the F-35, intended as the ‘low’ (weight/capability) to the F-22’s ‘high’, has an empty weight of 13154 kg, compared to the Gripen E’s svelte 8000 kg (the respective maximum take-off weights are 27000 kg and 16500 kg). Though the F-35 may, by a combination of manipulation and mass production, eventually have a competitive quoted price tag, the Gripen E will be far cheaper to operate and maintain. The Gripen has a history of punching above its weight class, with the C/D frequently entered in procurement competitions against the middle-weight Typhoon, Gripen and late-life F-16. Indeed when Hush-Kit asked Jim Smith , who had significant technical roles in the development of the  the JSF and Eurofighter Typhoon, to rank modern modern fighter aircraft he put the Meteor-armed Gripen in joint 2nd place (just behind the F-22) as homeland air defence fighter (ranking it higher than the current Typhoon, Rafale, Su-30/ F-18E/F, F-15, Su-35, J-11, F-35 and the J-20). He noted, “Starting with Air Defence, let’s suppose you have a small-ish nation, where the Government does not have global dominance in its agenda. For such a nation, the key aim is deterrence, ensuring that any country wishing to invade or dominate you cannot easily do so. For such a nation, Gripen/Meteor might be the ultimate air defender, especially if you have a well-integrated air defence system and dispersed bases. Never being far from the border or a base, fuel volume and even weapons load don’t matter so much, because you’ll scoot back to your cave and re-arm/refuel. Having a big stick, however, is great, because you can defeat threats while keeping out of their missile range.”

While some of the ‘Christmas tree ‘ loadouts (seven Meteors!) displayed by Saab seem unlikely to be carried operationally, the Gripen will be able to carry significantly more fuel and ordnance than its predecessor.

Intrigued by the Gripen E, I caught up with the Gripen’s Head of Marketing & Sales Richard Smith to find out more.

 

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The Gripen E/F are now in development, what’s new about them? I could write rather a lot on this question alone. Hopefully we will cover a lot in the coming questions. I would like to start by saying why a Brit ended up working at Saab. I came here as part of the original Gripen joint venture between Saab and BAE SYSTEMS, after working for several years on the Hawk programme. But after 6 years, I stayed in Sweden, and joined Saab. Why? Many reasons, but one is that this company is outstanding. It empowers everybody, encourages out of the box thinking, and drives innovative thinking in every area. That way of thinking, that way of working is what makes Gripen such a good product, and many underestimate just how operationally outstanding this fighter system is. Our way of doing things is doing them better and smarter than others. So what have we done that is better and smarter with Gripen E? We have understood that the future of air combat is going to be defined by technology – and we have built a system that truly adapts and embraces new technologies in a way that will keep us ahead of 21st century threats – fast. This is achieved through our deep and long experiences in sensor fusion and a revolutionary avionics system. For me, it means that the talk of generations, I hear so much of from within the industry just no longer means anything at all. The technology we have now, the ideas Saab engineers are working on, ensure that Gripen quite literally transcends all generations.

When it be ready to enter frontline service? Deliveries are scheduled from 2019 to Sweden and Brazil.

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Who has ordered Gripen E/F it and in what numbers? Sweden 60, Brazil 36

Its thrust-to-weight ratio seems the lowest of fighters in production, is this true and if not, what is lower? In this context I can say the thrust-to-weight is certainly enough. The design of the aircraft makes it very slick, compare it to a hot knife cutting through butter. This is quite an “old school” question, as the modern warfare is not as dependent on turn and burn fights any longer.

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How does it compare in terms of Agility/manoeuvrability with the following platforms: 1.Rafale 2. Typhoon 3. F-35 4. Su-35? Well I can’t or rather we don’t comment on the competition, other than saying these aircraft are all good. But with Gripen E operational capabilities and technological advances – in a “knife-fight” we bring the “gun”.

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Some companies avoid publicly stating the cost of their aircraft, but Saab seems more transparent. The Gripen is touted as a lower cost option, roughly what would a nation buying 24 Gripen E/Fs pay per unit? Well we are very transparent, but won’t give out flyaway prices. I can say that in Brazil the public figures for the total aircraft, support and Industrial package are quite public, and when compared to other public figures, well we deliver value for money.

Approximate cost per flight hour of the E/F? I can say that the cost per flight hours is very good, but the issue to give a figure is that apples are never compared directly with apples, when it comes to this question.

Radar? This (see below) is the current radar performance on the Gripen C with the PS-05 Mk 4 . It has been improved radically to cope with the change of threats and the integration of METEOR. The AESA on the Gripen E will continue the technology improvement path building on an already capable system – check out this link for the Gripen E raven radar.http://www.leonardocompany.com/en/-/raven-1

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Manhours per flight hours of E/F? The Gripen E/F has the same stringent standards set on the expected performance as the Gripen C/D.

General cost of replacement parts compared to mass produced F-16? Impossible to answer, but this is incorporated into the Flight Hour cost and I am totally confident that Gripen is significantly less than any competitor. One further thing to note – we develop fighters that use the best equipment available – tapping into economies of scale – a notable example is that we directly connected to the GE F414 engine.

In the leaked Swiss fighter evaluation (see below) Gripen did very poorly, having an far lower overall score than the F/A-18s it was pitching to replace. It did particularly badly in the categories of detection, combat radius and survivability. Has this been rectified in the new Gripens? How would you respond to the each area of weakness reported? I was the Campaign Director for Switzerland and I won’t comment on the report directly but will say the “leaked” documents covered just a small part of much more thorough evaluation – that by the way Gripen clearly won.

According to Lockheed Martin, the F-35 is the only system that could reliably penetrate a modern air defence system on Day 1 of a war – do you agree with this? Not going to comment on their statements.

Gripen was is first fighter to carry Meteor operationally, how capable are Meteor-armed Gripens compared to AMRAAM/R-77 carriers? AMRAAM C7 is a very capable weapon and we work very closely with Raytheon on the global market. METEOR does have a “significant range”, and very high “no escape” zone. It has range, ram-jet propulsion, data-link communication. Gripen E is designed to be able to carry 7 Meteors. 

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Note: the Gripen E does not supercruise at Mach 2.

Gripen was the first aircraft in the world to become fully operational with the METEOR. The current Swedish Air Force Chief has described the weapon and new radar performance of the Gripen C as “game-changing”. Gripen C, which is operational in Sweden now, is flying operations with Meteor, and can carry 4 Missiles. The Gripen E can be equipped with 7 Meteors, 4 on the wings and 3 under the centre fuselage.

I think many like to boast, but we prefer not to, perhaps that is Swedish Culture. That said, I attach a pdf of some comments made on our capability by others. (Editor notes: Red Flag quote is from a USAF service person)

 How does Gripen compare in terms of reliability to the F-16 and Typhoon? Gripen was designed from the very outset, day 1 of its design, to be easy to maintain and easy to repair. Context here – full air to air re-arm and re-fuel on a FOB in 10 minutes. Can be maintained by 1 fully qualified maintainer and only 5 conscripts. And a full engine change can be made in one hour.

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Few land-based fighters have been successfully converted into carrier aircraft, is a Gripen Maritime plausible? Very much so. Gripen is designed for extremely short take-off and landing already.

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Tell me something I don’t know about the Gripen I can see that many of your questions focus on ‘turn and burn‘- and sometimes I see discussions on ‘generations’. The modern warfare jet, like Gripen E is designed to be SMARTER than the threat. Technology moves at such high pace, our philosophy to ensure the platform is equipped with new software/hardware, in line with the high speed of technology enhancements. Technology will win the future fight. Gripen is equipped with many modern sensor systems, but why is it so good? Because, Saab excels at sensor fusion, and information interpretation, ensuring the aircraft, sensors and the pilot work as one, no longer just together. To meet this capability Saab has designed an entirely new, some say revolutionary Avionics architecture.

What is the biggest myth about the aircraft? Its name means half Lion, half Eagle!

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When we interviewed RUSI analyst Justin Bronk he noted: Gripen is a bit of an unknown quantity against modern air superiority machines because it takes a fundamentally different approach to survivability.” What do you think he means by that? 

In terms of the comment by the RUSI analyst – offence is one aspect of warfare, but defence and survivability are equally important as they are the building blocks that ensure the mission is successful. Gripen has a low RCS, a highly advanced AESA<Editor notes: Richard’s answer in this question relate to Gripen E/F which are not yet operational> ,  a passive Infra-Red Search and Track (IRST) sensor system<again this is for future Gripen only) making it difficult to detect, and an improved Electronic Warfare (EW) system for the disruption and detection of threats. All the systems are governed by a new avionics system, where functions that are flight-safety critical are separate from tactical ones.

The improved EW system in Gripen E, MFS-EW (Multi Functional System), is based on the EW product family called Arexis. Arexis is based on wideband digital technology specifically developed for robustness in the very complex signal environment of today. The core technologies in Arexis are ultra-wideband digital receivers and digital radio frequency memory (DRFM) devices, gallium nitride (GaN) solid state active electronically scanned array (AESA) jammer transmitters and interferometric direction finding systems.

The Operational Signal environment for EW systems is becoming more and more complex. Systems developed 20 years ago are not able to handle all these signals, making it difficult to differentiate the threats signals from other signals. MFS-EW is made to handle the signal environment of today and in the future by using ultra wide band digital receivers, advanced signal processing and extensive processing capacity that can distinguish the real threat signals from others. The MFS EW is fully integrated with other tactical mission systems on board the aircraft, and there are also sensor fusion on several layers in the aircraft, combining all tactical sensors in Gripen E such as the AESA Radar, Electro optical sensors, IRST and also the datalink. These sources and sensors are integrated into one high level sensor fusion and situational awareness system for the pilot to enhance the effectiveness of the mission.

Gripen is popularly thought to be the fighter with the greatest ‘connectivity’ – why, and what does that mean exactly? And finally, with years of data-link experiences, that goes as far back as the Draken fighters, Gripen does not just embrace data-links, and connectivity, it has become a world-leader in maximising the benefits of them, and using data links, and connectivity operationally in “wolf pack” tactics.

 

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