Are Swedish warplanes overrated?

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We all love Nordic things. These nations’ sensible, progressive laws, epic countryside, the lovely cars and the way they seem to get modernity just right. But could this love of Scandinavia be a trifle rose-tinted — and could it be affecting the way we consider their fighter aircraft, the Saab Gripen? 

In ‘The Almost Perfect People’,  Michael Booth, takes a look at the complex – and often dark reality behind the myth of a Nordic utopia. He finds a region in the grip of stifling conformism, with an alarming number of extremists. Of the Nordic nations, Sweden is the best at public relations. The fact that we even have a common idea of a nation with a population less than the city of Jakarta is a sign that they are indeed very good at public relations. Leaping to the obvious, we may even consider the popularity of IKEA furniture, despite the sagging sadness of the Billy bookcase (and the company’s sinister origins and use of forced labour) in the corner of your room. It’s enough to make you wonder if the almost universal aviation press approval of the Gripen is equally biased or if this tiny fighter really is as good as they say it is.

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Sweden is an oddball plane-making nation. No nation this small makes world-class fighter aircraft. In fact, very few nations make their own fighter aircraft. There are only six nations that make (mostly) indigenous fighter aircraft: the United States, Russia, China, India, France and Sweden. There’s a good reason for this: it is very expensive to make a fighter aircraft and they are made in small numbers, so buying them off the shelf or sharing the effort with a friendly nation makes sense. Of course no aircraft are completely indigenous in terms of design, production and all components – but some do come pretty close. Sweden’s policy of neutrality has driven their indigenous fighter, and it’s been making its own warplanes for a long time, and they’ve generally been excellent. Whereas France’s industry has been fortified by a nationalist socialism forged in a traumatising military defeat, Sweden’s has been built on social democracy, tactical neutrality and the presence of a worrying superpower neighbour. And tradition.

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Sweden leapt into the jet fighter age with alacrity: the SAAB 21R first flew in 1947, six months before the US’ F-86 Sabre. This was impressive – it was even one year ahead of the first French jet fighter, the Ouragan. A SAAB J 29B Tunnan broke the world record for the 310 mile (500 km) closed course in May 1954. The record had been held by the F-86 Sabre at 590 mph (950 km/h) but the Tunnan raised it to 607 mph (977 km/h).* The Lansen was next, followed by the Draken which achieved a great deal on half the installed thrust of the British Lightning, then the Viggen – which was probably more survivable than mere top trumps stats might suggest – and the tiny Gripen, which entered service in 1996. With a 6800 kg empty weight, the Gripen was a very different proposition to the European fighters that followed it: the Rafale enter service in 2001 and had an empty weight of around 10000 kg, the Typhoon (2004) was even heavier at 11000kg. 9000-CC-1986JAS-39-Gripen_01.jpg

Yet the Swedish midget would face-off against these far larger rivals in international competitions, a sign that it could punch above its weight. In 2008 the three Eurocanards (the European Gripen, Rafale and Typhoon all have a tail-first ‘canard’ configuration) fought to be procured by the Swiss Air Force.

*In January 1955, two Tunnan S 29Cs gained the world record for the 620 mile (1000 km) closed course achieving an average speed of 560 mph (901 km/h).

Swiss evaluation

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Arguably, leaks are the only way we can get meaningful information on how capable a warplane actually is. The manufacturers are only interested in sharing positive stories about their aircraft. The degree of honesty expressed by the operators varies  — they must balance the power display of deterrence with not looking naive or insane, and the fact that some of assessments are in the public domain. Boasting about your aircraft’s abilities often goes down well with a domestic audience, but if too silly will encourage international ridicule — as was the case with the Iranian IAIO Qaher-313. The media is generally interested in either a nationalistic chest-thump or a left-wing damning of the cost and folly of all military hardware. National competitive evaluations of foreign types do tell us something, but are all too often swayed by corruption and steered by political allegiances. The specialised press, badly paid and overworked, generally only have the time to reword a press release. So, for the nations that don’t have honest assessment results in the public domain this leaves us with leaks as the sole source of useful information… well, that and physics or a knowledge of budget size. Of course leaks happen with motive — and as we will see it’s not too hard to imagine who was behind the leak of the Swiss fighter evaluation results of 2008. This competition pitted the Gripen against the larger Typhoon and Rafale. The results were a savaging of the Gripen, which was seen to be inferior to the aircraft it was intended to replace, the F/A-18, in many key areas (though notably the Gripen’s electronic warfare systems performance was described as superior to the Typhoon). It needs to be noted that the Gripen has half the engine power of the Hornet*, the two types use the same US engine, the F404, but the Hornets have two per aircraft, Gripens only one. This should equate to lower running costs, and certainly does in the amount of fuel that will be consumed. Even factoring this in, the results were rather humiliating for Gripen. Chris Pocock quoted the assessors as saying “endurance, aircraft performances and aircraft weapon load were among the main limiting factors.” …before noting…“The evaluators said there was no sensor data fusion between the radar and EW suite, although the latter “was among the strong points of the Gripen.” 

*It has slightly more than half, Gripen C/D has 54 kN (12,000 lbf) in dry thrust dry and  80.5 kN (18,100 lbf) in reheat; Half of Hornet C/D thrust is 11,000 lbf (49 kN) thrust dry, 17,750 lbf (79.0 kN) with reheat. 

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Despite this the Gripen won, the Rafale being dismissed on cost grounds. Boeing believed from the outset that the conclusion had been made before the evaluation and had prematurely withdrawn its Super Hornet from the contest, probably a good decision  considering the result and following leak. The Gripen procurement didn’t happen though. The contest was then relaunched, but the nascent Gripen E was not eligible as it was immature at the time, and Saab pulled their offer in 2019. 

(The Gripen probably was the best fit for Switzerland, in terms of both cost and deployability, and in reality not much is asked of the Swiss Air Force anyway. It is  incapable of maintaining a state of 24/7 readiness due to limited budget and lack of staff  and is operated from 06:00-22:00 local time only. Hopefully potential enemies will respect office hours. Italian and French fighters are permitted to enter Swiss airspace to handle potential threat.)

 

 

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How Swedish is it? 

Leaked diplomatic cables from 2008 show Swedish requests for the US to supply AESA radar technology for the Gripen. As this potentially upgraded Gripen would have been a rival to the F-35, especially in the Danish competition, Sweden was keen to show the US that Gripen sales would be mutually beneficial. The report noted that Gripen contains 50 percent U.S. content, including engines, avionics and weapon systems. With this in mind it is clear that the Gripen is not as autonomous from US wishes as is often suggested. This has been since improved to some degree with the addition of the European Meteor (and European AESA for Gripen E/F).

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A place for surplus love

A friend of mine, a seasoned aviation writer, had an interesting theory: the British love of Swedish fighters stems, at least partly, from an absence of British fighters. British children, particularly boys, read books and play with toys which celebrate Britain’s glorious aeronautical past and the cult of the Spitfire. But Britain stopped making fighters when the last BAC Lightning rivet was screwed in for Saudi Arabia. so where could this surplus enthusiasm go? Let’s have a look at the likely candidates —French aircraft? The sting of envy was too great. US aircraft? Too gauche, and no underdog appeal. Soviet? Yes, but they’re the baddies so can’t show too much love. Chinese? Not very good and somehow absent of emotive appeal. Which left this notional British man of the 1970s with one strong candidate: Sweden. Their great cars, made by the same damn company that made the enormously charismatic Viggen, were a  gateway- (or perhaps ‘gateguard’-) drug to mainlining Volvo jet noise.  Added to this, is the connoisseur’s desire to avoid the obvious, steering them well away from American offerings. Sweden’s aircraft are pleasingly leftfield, and no-one outside of Scandinavia is offended by Sweden’s foreign policy (or even knows what it is).

Interview with a Gripen pilot here

Interview with a Viggen pilot here

10 most beautiful Swedish aircraft here 

But it is actually pretty good

The Gripen is relatively cheap to operate and can do the vast majority of missions a modern air force requires from it. Its electronic warfare suite is highly regraded, in a Hush-Kit interview, Justin Bronk noted:

“Against the Su-35S (a very capable heavy Russian fighter aircraft) Gripen would rely on the cutting edge EW capabilities which Saab builds the Gripen (especially the new E/F) around to hide the aircraft from the sensors of the Russian jets in much the same way as the Raptor relies on x-band stealth. These EW capabilities are so highly classified that there is simply no way to assess their effectiveness in the public domain. Having said that, RAF pilots who I have talked to with experience of the Saab fighter’s EW teeth first hand say that the ability of the aircraft to get alarmingly close without detection thanks entirely to EW is very impressive.”

Gripen offers great autonomy for operators than the F-35, less maintenance burden than the Typhoon, more commonality with widely used weapons than the Rafale. Against the F-16, for some parts of the world, it offers a less controversial allegiance. We asked a Gripen pilot how confident he would be fighting 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 F-16’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.”

Jim Smith, in assessing Gripen’s combat effectiveness, opined: “‘suppose you have a small-ish nation, where the government does not have global dominance in its agenda. … For such a nation, Gripen/Meteor might be the ultimate air defender, especially if you have a well-integrated air defence system”

Away from high Gs (but equally important) is faith that the chosen contractor can deliver on time and budget. What is most impressive about Saab is its efficiency. It is less bloated than its American rivals, less prone to pork-barrel politics and the Swedish approach does not financially reward programme delays in the same way as the British and US aerospace systems. Its factories are small and lean. This efficiency is very unusual, and probably unque. When Hush-Kit spoke to respected aviation reporter Bill Sweetman, we asked him the following:

The Typhoon, F-22 and F-35 programmes have all received a great deal of criticism; can you give an example of a well-run military aircraft project? “Almost anything from the land of blondes, aquavit and IKEA.”

The world knows this and everyone wants to jump into bed with Saab. An example being the Boeing/Saab T-7 Red Hawk and the UK’s attempts to seduce Saab to join project Tempest. But promiscuity may be Saab’s undoing — can it effectively firewall its uniquely functional culture from the corruption of the political- military -industrial mess in other countries? Another point: the US does not tolerate international competition. One way to quash potential rivals is to collaborate until the majority of the employees and orders are held in the US. Collaboration could be Saab’s undoing in the longterm.

Ethical?

Ethical arms exportation maybe a ridiculous (arguably oxymoronic) idea in most cases but how does the Gripen do in relative terms? Let’s have a look. (The common counter-argument for arms export limitation that “if we didn’t sell weapons to nation X, other nations would.”, doesn’t bear any scrutiny as a moral position). I have chosen the 2012 Human Freedom Index as the information is readily available and it seems a reasonable date point in the history of Gripen exports. Exports counted if some payment has been received and delivery is likely.

Gripen export operators ranked by position in 2012 Human Freedom Index (variation where better source available)

Brazil – Ranked at 82

South Africa – Ranked at 70

Thailand – not viewed as full democracy, in the 2012 Human Freedom Index  it was ranked at 86 of 152. *see notes 

Hungary – at 36, is pretty good.

Czech Republic – 21 (very good)

Lower score best

295 divided by 5

Average score: 59

Typhoon export operators ranked by position in 2012 Human Freedom Index 

Saudi Arabia -141

Oman – 45

Austria – 12

Kuwait – 59

Qatar – 140

389 divided by 5

Average score: 77.8

Though officially Saudi Arabia sales are suspended due to German insistence, Eurofighter continues support with RSAF and continues courting for further sales.

Rafale export operators ranked by position in 2012 Human Freedom Index 

Egypt: 136

India: 75

Qatar: 114

Average score:

325 divided by 3

108.33

Ethical export score

Rafale: 108.33 (worst)

Typhoon: 77.8

Gripen: 59

 

But Sweden does sell military aircraft to Saudi Arabia, but instead of a highly conspicuous fighter-bomber deal has supplied the extremely effective Erieye Airborne Early Warning and Control System. Also, judging only the winners of international contests seems questionable; Gripen was offered to Saudi Arabia in the mid 1990s and failed to get an order. Though admittedly this took place when Saab had an arrangement with BAe.

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Green fighter  

Much like ‘ethical weapons’, the notion of Green weapons seems bizarre. Weapons are for destruction, not preservation purposes and war is a last resort, so surely a Green consideration is meaningless? Well not really, as most weapon’s use is in training and/or as a deterrent. Sweden is very good at this, and has led the way in lead-free ammunition.

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The Gripen uses the smallest engine (and only one per aircraft) of fighters in its class so this should mean it used less fuel for a given mission. But this must be balanced against other aircraft being able to carry more weapons for a single mission — this is rather complicated, and factors to consider when assessing this would be how frequently other aircraft (for example the larger Typhoon) expend all munitions in real missions. It appears likely that for a given mission objective Gripens would use less fuel, but in reality it is very hard to work this out. One further complication being the Gripen’s ‘short legs’ mean it is may be more dependent on air-refuelling aircraft than other aircraft.

Gripen pilot discusses Gripen E and C here. 

As the Gripen was a little earlier than the Rafale and Typhoon, it employs a more old-fashioned use of materials. Only around 30% of the Gripen is composite, compared to 82% for Typhoon. This means it may have sacrificed a weight saving (though this may be less clearcut than is commonly understood due to safety considerations) but is probably less hazardous in the case of a crash. When composite materials (including carbon fibre, fibreglass and kevlar) are involved on fire, they release toxic fumes — and
fibres may be released in the smoke plume. This is a significant hazards at accident sites and has been compared to the effects of breathing asbestos fibres. From this perspective 30% is better than 82%.. but still an issue.

One also wonders at which altitude aircraft exhausts are most environmentally deleterious — does the fact that the lower-powered Gripen spends less time at ultra-high altitudes than the Raptor and Typhoon make it Greener?

* I appreciate this is a very crude methodology (the top trumps stats for fighters never features an ethical angle so we’re inventing one here). But it tells us something, or at least starts a conversation. On this metric, the Rafale or rather Dassault, does particularly badly and the Gripen is a little better. Where more relevant, entries from different years/categories have been used. Again: this is a very rough-and-ready ‘prototype’ approach.

Gripen E interview here

I have no conclusion, just the rather jumbled musings above. What is worth considering is the language and preconceptions we bring when discussing aircraft of different national origins, especially when the aircraft comes from our own country. Away from this rationality, the romance of these rare characterful machines shaking the snow from the trees in the far north remains as compelling as ever.

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10 comments

  1. Kjell

    A comment about the so called leaked Swiss report is that it is totaly useless as they didn’t documented the degenaration of the points given, as the Gripen had the biggest delta between the tests and promised upgrades it is very probably they would come out much better. But you can look in the Swiss investigation about the proces that actually explaines the degeneration in the evaluation but of course doesn’t explaines the how much the degeneration was.

    From the Subkommission TTE report with help of Google translate
    “Assessment of the differences to the procurement configuration: The improvements promised by the manufacturers could not be logically tested in flight tests. However, they were taken into account in the analytical evaluation conducted by the pilots and engineers of the Air Force and those of armasuisse. These improvements were not taken into account at 100 percent, but were given a credibility factor between 0.2 and 0.8 depending on the implementation. If the announced improvement was only in the specification phase, it gained a factor of 0.2. If, on the other hand, the improvement had already been subjected to a flight test (but not yet installed in the aircraft) the credibility factor has been set to 0.8.
    Let’s take an example of the element that has received the grade 5 in flight tests: the manufacturer announces a significant improvement in the 2015 procurement configuration, which means that the element contained in the vendor’s offerings increases the score by four to nine points Experience. If this announced improvement is made on paper, it will have a credibility factor of 0.2 and the initial score of 5 increases by 0.8 (4×0.2 = 0.8) to 5.8 points. If, on the other hand, the announced improvement was already documented, the initial score is raised by 3.2 (4×0.8 = 3.2) to 8.2 points.”

    • emeraldharvest

      Yes very true, the Swiss report also somehow gave so much credit to the Rafale for a lot of air engagement trails even though the Rafale did not have a dedicated long range weapon at the time, while Typhoon had AMRAAM, the Rafale would not have a higher end missile for beyond medium range until the Meteor.

      Its likely that some of the trials had an assumed requirement for the planes to be at lower speeds and ceilings, closer to the original F-18, so that planes like the Typhoon that are higher altitude/faster air supremacy fighters did not dominate the contest.

  2. Arne Lidmark

    The sensor fusion is complete in Gripen E. Glass cockpit, datafusion, secure broadband tactical datalink and a locistics/mission system comparable to ALIS have been working well in Viggen since 1980 and in an earlier version since 1973. The continuously developed system in Gripen E may be the best such system that exist today. The GaN avionics is the only one in fighter airplanes. How much this enhance the capabilitys is not open information. But Rayteon claim that their new GaN AESA is 5 times better than their earlier version.

  3. Pingback: Wi not trei a holiday in Sweeden this yer ? - Lawyers, Guns & Money
  4. Pingback: 1. US Security from Michael_Novakhov (88 sites): The National Interest: Sweden's Gripen Fighter Has Become The World's Best Second-Tier Jet | News Links - news-links.org

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