Saab's Gripen is back, leaner and meaner than ever before. TIM ROBINSON reports from Linköping as Sweden starts rebuilding its defence muscles.

The first Gripen E prototype was rolled out on 18 May 2016 in Linköping, Sweden. 

After a decade of thinking about expeditionary operations, Sweden is now reorienting to build up its neglected national defence capabilities as Russian provocations now define the 'new normal'.

One key part of this will be the new Gripen E fighter – a Gripen with longer range, heavier payload and greater range of weapons, as well as the sensors and EW that a combat aircraft needs to survive in the post-2025 threat environment. Although the NG demonstrator that tested technologies for the E first flew in 2008, the Gripen E now arrives at a critical time when Russian sabre-rattling and probing of its neighbours is at a high pitch. The Swedish Air Force will acquire 60 Gripen Es, with the first delivery to take place in 2019.

Briefing specialist aviation press before the roll-out ceremony on 18 May, Maj Gen Matts Helgesson, Chief of the Swedish Air Force, explained how in the past few years Gripens had been busy flying QRAs against airborne intruders – with a high of 400 in 2013. Last year saw 330 with this year looking similar in numbers of intrusions. Of course, not all of these intercepts are Russian incursions but Helgesson noted the provocative nature of some of these flights, with no transponders and Russian fighters sometimes coming as close as 15m. Simulated nuclear attack runs on Stockholm by Russian bombers have also raised tensions.

To that end the Swedish Air Force, along with the rest of the country's armed forces, is taking a fresh interest in its core role of national defence - and this has been boosted by an increased defence budget until 2020 that was voted in last year. "It is trend-breaking" said Helgesson "it allows us to develop possibilities." 

First in service with Meteor

The latest MS20 update to the Gripen C/D adds MBDA Meteor and Boeing SDB integration. 

This year, the Swedish Air Force Gripen C/Ds are in the process of fielding the 'game-changing' MBDA BVRAAM – the first country to do so. This is part of a MS20 software update that also includes Boeing Small Diameter Bomb integration, a recce pod, digital close-air support and improved logistics and maintenance.

The Swedish AF is also working to rebuild its C2 and base operations, and this year is conducting an operational evaluation of its first NH90 ASW helicopter - a capability gap that became highly apparent in 2014 when an unknown submarine (presumed to be Russian) was spotted in Swedish waters.

Sweden is also boosting its ground-based air defence, along with two new submarines, a battlegroup and developing an offensive cyber capability. The Swedish Air Force meanwhile is reconstituting its dispersed airbase strategy and practicing deploying to austere locations – again another sign how seriously it is taking the 'new normal' of international security.

Although Defence Minister Peter Hultqvist, appraising the press on 17 May of the current security situation, ruled out joining NATO – the country is aiming to deepen partnerships with NATO nations and friendly neighbours – particularly Finland. Joint exercises, agreements on diversion airbases, secure communication links and co-operation on a common air picture are some of the ways in which Finnish and Swedish Air Forces are now working together. Finland, too, on the front line of Cold War 2.0 with a more aggressive Moscow, is thus a natural partner with Sweden.

Can industry cope with rapid rearmament?

Saab chief Håkan Buskhe posed an interesting question - could Europe's defence industry cope with a sharp rise in defence spending? (Saab)

Yet while increased defence spending in Sweden and elsewhere in Europe as nations respond to a belligerent Russia, might seem a cause for celebration in defence company boardrooms, Saab CEO Håkan Buskhe sounded a note of caution whether, in the short term, industry could cope with such a massive spending rise after years of being run-down with minimal orders.

Briefing journalists ahead of the Gripen E roll-out, Buskhe warned that if NATO aimed to boost GDP defence spending to 2% - industry would have difficulty in delivering in such a short period of time. Both US Presidential candidates, he noted, are united in favour of making Europe pay its way more in defence and if a new Washington Administration did get serious about this – then a 2% rise across the board would make for a 'huge' European rearmament plan said Bushke – with echoes of the 1930s. "You have to question if the defence industry can deliver such a big increased volume on short notice, having had such a long period of decreased capabilities" he said.

Of course, NATO spending goals have been set (and ignored before) but an unknown factor here is the new US President – who could very well hold Europe's feet to the fire. Is Europe's defence industrial base ready for a 1930s-style crash rearmament?

Export success

Brazil's Embraer (and other companies) will develop the two-seat Gripen F. (Saab)

While Saab foresees a NATO spending rise in Europe, it has also been spearheading a Swedish export drive, notching up the country's biggest ever ($4.8bn) export deal with an order for 36 Gripen E/Fs with Brazil – beating off competition from rival fighter manufacturers. This deal includes substantial technology transfer – with Brazil taking the lead in developing the two-seat version which will be equipped with a wide-area display. The technology transfer, which includes manufacturing, design and flight test work, effectively gives Brazil the capability to develop its own modern fighters in the future.

This model, says Saab, could also work for India, where the dogfight to supply the IAF with fighters is now back on after the collapse of the MRCA programme and defence companies watching the negotiations with Dassault with interest. India's fighter shortfall beyond the 35 Rafales it is now in talks for and its large, aging MiG-21 fleet means that even though the initial number is small – this could rise substantially. Saab thus sees its Brazil model fitting New Dehli's 'Make In India' policy perfectly.

More widely, there still remain large numbers of aging light combat aircraft (such as F-5s) worldwide – giving Saab the scope to build on Gripen export success it has already achieved with Czech Republic, Hungary, South Africa and Thailand. Overall, says Saab chief Buskhe, his target is 400-450 Gripen sales worldwide.

Potential new Gripen customers include Croatia, where a recent election delayed negotiations for a buy of eight, as well as Bulgaria, Belgium, Columbia, Finland and the aforementioned India.

Enter the Echo

Outwardly similar to the earlier C, the Gripen E is slightly longer and has a wider fuselage and a redesigned undercarriage. (Saab)

The latest version of the Gripen, the E, which will be delivered to the Swedish (and Brazilian) Air Force in 2019, with IOC scheduled for 2021, may look like a standard Gripen but is a very different beast under the skin. Increased fuel capacity by 40% gives it longer range and loiter time, and also meant the undercarriage was moved and redesigned. Extra hardpoints now means the Gripen has ten for weapons, fuel tanks or targeting/recce pods – giving the Gripen a bigger punch. A new engine, the F414G also provides 20% more thrust for this heavier variant.

It also has much improved sensors – with a Raven ES-05 AESA radar from Selex Galileo (now Leonardo). A repositionable swashplate that allows the radar to see 110degrees to the sides – giving the E (along with Meteor) a big advantage in BVR missile combat. The E also fields a Selex ES Skyward-G passive IRST sensor for radar-off engagements and to find stealth targets – for tomorrow's air combat where datalinks will see fighters silently try to stalk each other before getting the first kills.

The Gripen's already impressive electronic warfare (EW) suite has also been improved. Unlike the F-35, which relies on stealth to survive in a contested combat environment, Gripen will rely on its EW systems to hide, confuse and decoy the enemy. This suite (and its ability to be continually improved against current and evolving threats) make the Gripen much more of a 'balanced' fighter says Saab. On the Gripen E, the EW suite will also be enhanced with a missile warning and awareness system. 

Finally, the Gripen E will also make use of Selex ES's BriteCloud active decoy system. All these sensors and defensive aids represent a leap in situational awareness and survivability for the Gripen pilot – which are then pulled together with an advanced HMI and 'sensor fusion'.

Smarter than the average fighter?

The Gripen E's avionics architecture should mean integrating new weapons is easier than before. (Saab) 

However, probably the advance that Saab is most proud of with the new Gripen is in its avionics architecture. With the Gripen E, it has started from scratch and created a distributed integrated modular avionics system that separates the 10% of core flight critical management codebase from 90% of tactical management code. The result is that the avionics are hardware agnostic and that the tactical management part is now effectively like a smartphone – able to receive new 'apps' (for example for radars, sensors or weapon integration) – without the need to re-certify the flight critical software. This means that upgrades to functionality, displays, computers, sensors and weapons should be easier, cheaper and faster in the future. Saab already practices a process of 'small steps' of upgrades (MS20 being the latest) with the Gripen, rather than big MLUs (mid-life upgrades) and this should make the its capability to be rapidly upgraded through software even faster. For instance, having made Gripen's tactical management systems non-hardware dependent, it is not inconceivable that the Wide Area Display (WAD) currently under development for the Brazilian Air Force, could find its way back into Swedish AFs Gripen Es.

Production efficiencies

 Flight testing of the Gripen E will be cut by two-thirds.

Another breakthrough on the Gripen E say Saab, is in the full-scale use of Model-Based Systems Engineering – to virtually test and verify complex aircraft systems using simulation tools and digital engineering – with around 50,000 paper documents and drawings now replaced with a single digital model. While certainly not unique (and indeed a must in the civil airliner world today) this time Saab has pushed the envelope further. The results, it says, have been dramatic. For instance, a standard time of 'learning how to produce an aircraft at optimum efficiency' usually happens after the 180th aircraft has rolled off the production line (or T180). Saab's goal with MBSE was to bring it down to T30 and it has actually exceeded this. Says Lars Ydreskog, Head of Operations: "It was amazing – we couldn't believe it." All told, these efficiencies mean that Saab's touted 18 months to delivery is now only limited by long-lead items – and could theoretically be even shorter in the future.

This testing and verification process has also enabled the company to slash the flight test programme by two-thirds – although it has to be said, there must be considerable read-over from previous Gripen flight test programmes. Four aircraft will take part in the test campaign (including one Brazilian jet), with a first flight aimed at around the end of the year.

Beyond the Gripen E

Sweden is already thinking about combat aircraft beyond current fighters - what about the rest of Europe? (Saab)

As well as the new Gripen E, Saab also expects there to be a healthy global market for the C/D variants in the future, and plans to keep modernising them as much as possible. While some of the structural advancements of the E (eg extra fuel) will be impossible to retrofit, Saab sees some avionics improvements flowing back into the C models to keep them as current as possible. Indeed, in ten years time the Swedish Air Force will begin retiring its 97 C/D models. Currently it has made 'no decision' what to do with these, according to the SwAF chief but they could represent a potential bargain for smaller air forces looking to purchase fighters in that timeframe. However, intriguingly, in 2013 Saab announced it was mulling an unmanned Gripen variant. "We see manned/unmanned teaming in the future" said SwAF chief Hagelsson. Could then these Gripen Cs be turned into UCAV wingman for Swedish AF Gripen Es?

As well as unmanned Gripen concepts, Saab is also working on the Sea Gripen – a potential solution for Brazil's carrier-based air power. Having studied the concept, Saab is now confident that it is feasible – the Gripen having been designed for no-flare landings on short roads as part of Swedish defence strategy.

Finally the company is looking further beyond the Gripen itself and at one of the briefings showed a notional concept of a twin-tailed manned/unmanned Future Combat Air System (FCAS). At a time when the only future combat aircraft beyond Eurofighter and Rafale is the Anglo-French UCAV, it is noteworthy that a company in a country of 9.5 million thinks it is feasible (and worthwhile) to consider developing a sixth-generation fighter.

Summary

Roll-outs of new fighters are now few and far between.

There is no doubt then that the roll-out of the Gripen E, only two years after it was launched, comes at a critical time for Sweden as it is rebuilds its neglected national defence when the 'new normal' of an unpredictable Russia and arc of instability across Middle East and North Africa reshape international relations. While IOC for the Gripen E in SwAF service is still five years off, the latest MS20 update with Meteor and SDBs will hold the line against evolving threats.

The new Gripen also represents new opportunities for further defence sales and exports for Sweden, for those countries unable to afford, or restricted to buy F-35s, Eurofighters, Super Hornets or Rafales – and the ability to mix and match a wide variety of weapons. Saabs technology transfer and partnership with Brazil in providing the opportunity for a country to develop its aerospace sector to the next level, also creates a highly attractive proposition and industrial model that could be replicated elsewhere.

Finally, perhaps the best evidence that the company has indeed 'broken the combat aircraft cost curve' with Gripen, was its selection by Boeing to partner it on developing a clean-sheet jet trainer for the US Air Force's T-X requirement. Despite Boeing's vast design and engineering resources, it seems to have recognised that tapping into Saab's skill and experience in designing affordable, yet capable fighters could give it the edge in this huge training competition.


24 May 2016