“I know the guys in the Swedish Air Force are very keen to fly their Gripens in air combat manoeuvres against Denmark’s and Norway’s F-35s. I think you can guess why.”
What is your favourite thing about Gripen?
“The large display real-estate. Gripen C/D has a huge Head-Up-Display (HUD) and three large colour Head-Down Displays (HDDs). This gives ample opportunity to create a high-fidelity user interface for the pilot. The big HUD is good for dog-fighting (even though that’s going away, as fun as it was) and HDDs is for Beyond Visual Range air-to-air combat and basically all other mission types that are the chess-playing of today’s air operations. A good pilot user interface and decision support system is an untapped and under developed innovation resource in fighter aircraft, as traditionally “hard” specs have been favoured, perhaps because they are easier to quantify into numbers. In a lot of scenarios, a next-gen system vs a standard “show where the sensor fused enemies are on the map” – can make a 5 to 1 difference. That’s huge, and comparable to the gap between aircraft generations. Gripen E/F will come with an even larger wide area display (WAD) and the possibilities for software upgrades becomes endless. Nowadays my company creates decision support systems for military aircraft and C2-systems, and without large high-fidelity screens to show it on, it wouldn’t be possible. Artificial Intelligence really makes a difference here, but perhaps not in the way many people think of it. AI is for us basically a way to reduce the calculations to fit within a fighter’s limited computing resources.”
“The pilot is still in-the-loop with our AI though, and makes the tactical decisions, but is being presented with information that is richer and more pre-calculated to how the pilot is thinking. All this wouldn’t be possible without the larger screens that can convey the information. This is why it’s my favourite feature, it makes the aircraft more software upgradable. What is your least favourite thing? The refuelling probe length and position on the Gripen C/D. Even though I know the reasons behind the placing and length (retrofitted into an already set fuselage) it makes a mission component, that should be easy and predictable, an unnecessarily exciting part of the mission. Anecdote coming up! I’ve been told that when Gripen C/D was certified for air refuelling the subject matter expert pilot said something like: “Gripen has probably the world’s worst probe placement but compensates that with the world’s best flight control system.” I concur with the statement. You can fly to the basket/drogue and stay easily within a meter or so of it, positioning your Gripen with almost centimetre precision with the stick, but when you approach it the wake of the canopy will push it outwards. This means that you’ll have to “go for it” and aim a bit on the outside of the drogue. This is not a good recipe for predictability. You do get good at it after a while and learn how to do it safely, but a longer probe wouldn’t harm.”
Would you be confident facing an F-16?
“Absolutely. I can’t think of anything the F-16 would be better at, if we don’t count ease of refuelling (F-16 is refuelled with a boom and the boom operator does much of the job). Of course, there’s a lot of details and circumstances here, but generally the Gripen is a step or two ahead, especially in my favourite areas. As mentioned, I really like pilot UI and large screens, and F-16 is lacking a bit in that area, so maybe I’m a bit biased. I do like the F16’s side-stick though! I have flown an F-16 and I loved the stick. It didn’t take many minutes to get used to the stiffer stick, and it’s more ergonomic for the pilot in high-Gs (and probably for long missions) to have it on the side. Flying in close formation with another fighter was almost as easy as with the Gripen.”