Flying & Fighting in the Gripen: Interview with a Swedish Air Force pilot

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Marty Feldman

 

“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.”

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“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?

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“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.”

Which aircraft did you DACT with in Gripen and how would you rank them in terms difficulty to defeat? Any surprises?

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“I’ve flown against F-16s and F-18s. No surprises really, they are what they are. The F-16s are a lot like the Gripens but you can claw yourself closer and closer to their behind, if that is your goal.

For F-18s you have to look out for their ability to do high AOA turns for quick point-and-shoot. They will be sitting ducks after such a move though. The Gripen ‘carves’ through the air better then both and you will not lose as much speed when turning. Saying that, I believe that ACM is mostly a curiosity today, but a damn fun one and good for training aircraft handling. The IRIS-T missile is so good (and as are others) that everything you can see with your eyes is basically within your Weapon Employment Zone, WEZ. You can of course end up in a ‘furball’, having to fight your way out with guns, but it would suboptimal to craft fighters for that purpose today, as anyone with a missile left would win hands down. So, it’s always better to opt for one more missile than guns, if we’re talking ACM.

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.”

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How you rate Gripen in the following areas:

Pilot comfort

“Very Good. You sit great, though not as leaned back as in the F-16. The suit is also great and give you enough support to make 9g fairly tolerable. The small number of gauges and knobs and the good reachability of everything you need to touch during a sortie makes the aircraft wonderful to work with. A side stick would give it a perfect score, but I know pilots that does not share my view on this.”

Instantaneous turn rate

“Perfect. You get 9g almost instantaneously for combat speeds, at most relevant altitudes. The care free manoeuvring means you can pull the stick as fast and hard as you want, and the aircraft will respond with 9g within a second or so, given you don’t have something hanging that make the flight control system automatically limit max g. No need for more here.”

Sustained turn rate

“Good. The Gripen “carves” very well through the air, much because of its all-moving canards and leading-edge slats. Even though it doesn’t have the thrust-to-weight ratio that for instance the Russian Su-35 have, it can hold it own. A pilot always wants more power of course, but if one is looking at the return on investment for more power to get combat effectiveness out of sustained turn rate, a bigger (i.e. heavier and more fuel consuming) engine is a hard sell.”

Climb rate

“Good enough. This is basically thrust-to-weight ratio. I’ve never felt the need to climb faster. I think max speed is more important since a higher speed means a lot in BVR combat. You can fire your weapons at longer distances and go further into an enemy’s WEZ if you have a higher speed.”

Combat effectiveness

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“Very good, with a possible trajectory to become stellar. The large screens on the Gripen makes it formidable for Situation Awareness (SA). Given that air operations are moving into more of a chess game than Top Gun turn and burn, the advantage is moving towards aircraft with great SA. Saab struggled initially, but in the long run it was a rewarding path to certify the on-board software in different levels. They call this app-thinking, and it means that all except the critical systems (like flight control software) run software that is not more critical than normal computer software. This can make it much (and I really mean much) cheaper and faster to develop new functionality for the Gripen. However, change is hard to achieve within a large organisation. If the mindset is still the same as for all other fighters in the world – that software for fighters should be developed like it always has been – the advantage will go away. Our company has bet on the prediction that Saab can and will make that mindset change and accept innovative features from external (and internal) suppliers.

Click on the type name for interviews with pilots of the following aircraft: MiG-25, B-52, Mirage 2000, Hawk, Tornado, Phantom, F-100, MiG-21, MiG-27, F-35 , English Electric Lightning 

Reliability

“Reliability is two-fold. How often will the aircraft break and how fast can it be fixed and sent back up again. Unfortunately, I don’t have the statistics on this, though it is my intuitive belief that Gripen is very reliable and extremely fast to get back up again. In operation Unified Protector (Libya) for instance, we had fewer aircraft and definitely fewer maintenance crew in our detachment than most (all?) other nations, and still managed to get a lot of flying time. I can’t remember a single mission being cancelled because of aircraft failure, and this was the first mission abroad for Sweden in 50 years and a new environment (much hotter). A full turn-around can be as fast as seven minutes if memory serves me, but a more normal time in day-to-day squadron ops is about 30 minutes with one maintenance crew for each aircraft. That is quite unique I think.”

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Was there any upgrades or equipment you wanted when you were on the Gripen?

“Lots! But that might be because I have been an inventor and innovator in this field for the two years. Many of the things are also now in the Gripen E. First and foremost, I would’ve liked to have a Missile Approach Warner (MAW) in the C/D. In a hostile environment you have to spend too much time looking at the ground without one, and the MAW is better at it anyway and never gets tired or distracted with pilot shit. I think the Gripen E’s AESA radar would be my next choice. The much greater search volume is nice, but I’m more excited about the increased flexibility in radar programs, anti-jamming, better low observability target tracking (de-stealthing) and such that AESA gives. When it comes to software, I’m probably most excited about the increased survivability our new optimal evasive manoeuvre AI algorithm HUMAN would give. It takes an incoming missile and calculates an optimal trajectory for the aircraft, given any number of overlapping priorities, like staying in doppler-zero* , aiming your Electronic Warfare System antennas towards it or just physically be as far away from the incoming missile as possible. Few pilots react perfectly when you might have seconds to live and an automated or semi-automated system might do a lot for pilot survival. Would it be too self-serving to also ask for our AI decision support system Rattlesnake? It keeps track of all known enemies and their history, our own capability and conduct massive parallel simulations (now off-line due to our patented AI) to be able to show the pilot (or fighter controller) how to fly to stay away from enemy missiles and how to manoeuvre for an optimal shot. I honestly want it as it would make me almost invincible in a BVR environment.  I could go on and on here, but maybe we should save that for a specific innovation interview?”

*Ed notes (“the classic zero doppler target is one which is on a heading that is tangential to the radar antenna beam. Basically, any target that is heading 90 degrees in relation to the antenna beam cannot be detected by its velocity”)

What was your most memorable mission and why?

Gripen_Libya_pic.jpg “Without a doubt the first mission in the Operation Protector over Libya. It was the first time in 50 years that Sweden was abroad with the Air Force in a conflict and I had the opportunity to lead our first mission into the area. Even though the memories of most of the following missions in the operation have faded, it feels like I remember every minute of that first one, better than any of them. It wasn’t very exciting per-se, and the mission went as planned, but it was uncharted territory psychologically. It was a little extra exciting as I had our squadron commander as my wingman and the mission could not fail, for many reasons, both military and political. It started with a very exciting air refuelling were we had to connect right after take-off due to fuel incompatibilities on the Sigonella base (don’t ask..). The bingo fuel warning alarm went off almost right away and creative manual calculations had to take its place. There were a few refuelling misses involved, the Air Force Chief looking back at us from the tanker, which was a C-130 that was really just a trainer, and me having to do a few short cuts through the Fighter Area of Responsibility to get on station on time and with enough fuel. But other than that, quite uneventful as we were just doing Defensive Counter Air for the tanker fleet. Psychologically it turns out that live missions are very similar to training ones, even pulse wise, but I didn’t know that before taking off. Train as you fight works.”

Would you have been confident going against Flankers?

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“Yes. Going up against Flankers is a very probable and much trained for scenario, given where Sweden is geographically. We’ll do great. One-versus-One air combat manoeuvring  is not how we expect to meet them though. A more likely scenario is large force operations/combined air operations where there’s a lot of aircraft in the area — and the chess game is on with beyond visual range combat in a complicated environment. in this situation achieving Situational Awareness is key to success in denying heavy enemy strike access to our airspace. Flankers are a hybrid of figure and speed skaters. Great for acrobatics, pirouettes and pure speed, but we expect the fight will be more like ice hockey, and we have the best all-round players for that. Throw in great team cooperation with reliable and fast fighter links, and I become even more confident. I guess the Flankers would want to make the battlefield as chaotic as possible so we can’t cooperate and keep our lines. That’s usually what you want when doing offensive operations against a organised defender. I also think they will come in great numbers, trying to saturate our defences and fewer resources. Our answer to that is staying organised, having many options to land for a quick turnaround (we have road bases, though not nearly as many as before) and practice keeping situational awareness in a chaotic environment.

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Gripen C/D+ has great missiles, maybe the best in the world with our integrated Meteor and IRIS-T, so if we can get a lock on then and can be at the right place at the right time, BVR duels shouldn’t be much of a problem. The Flankers have better weapons coming though (e.g. K77M), and our missile advantage might go away, but that’s how this very material sport works. Development is not static though and the Russians are putting a lot of effort into their modernisation and re-arming programme, while Sweden are lagging behind in spending.”

Which three words would you use to describe the Gripen? Well-balanced, cost-effective and future-proof.

Sadly, we are way behind our funding targets. This site is entirely funded by donations from people like you. We have no pay wall, adverts (any adverts you see on this page are not from us) or subscription and want to keep it that way– please donate here to keep this site going.
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