The Industry Group JAS (IG JAS) is the joint venture partnership that develops the Gripen System for the Swedish Armed Forces. Partners included in IG JAS are Saab Volvo Aero Corporation and Ericsson Microwave Systems, but Saab has recently announced the intent to acquire its partner in a deal expected to close in September 2006. The development and production of the Gripen has been one of Sweden’s largest industry projects, consuming up to one-third of the Swedish defense budget in some years.
The first JAS-39s were delivered in 1993, and the last Swedish plane was due to be delivered in 2007. While exact figures are extremely difficult to come by, sources place the average flyaway cost of the JAS-39 at about $40 million1 per plane, or about $50 million in current dollars. The whole Gripen production run for all customers, according to current orders, will reach 261 aircraft. This consists of:
6 prototypes (5 single-seat, 1 two-seat)
29 JAS-39A Batch 1s (Sweden)
76 JAS-39A Batch 2s (Sweden)
14 JAS-39B two-seater Batch 2s (Sweden)
20 JAS-39C Batch 2s (Sweden)
50 JAS-39C Batch 3s (Sweden)
12 Gripen Cs (Czech Republic)
14 JAS-39D two-seater Batch 3s (Sweden)
2 Gripen D two-seaters (Czech Republic)
17 Gripen Cs (South Africa)
9 Gripen D two-seaters (South Africa)
12 Gripen C/D (Thailand)
The leased Hungarian Gripen C/Ds (12 JAS-39C and 2 JAS-39D) are rebuilt Swedish Batch 1 and 2 aircraft. Additional Gripens have also been delivered to the multinational UK Empire Test Pilot’s School as their fast jet platform, and 6 JAS-39C/D aircraft have been ordered by Thailand, with an option for another 6.
The Gripen is an excellent lightweight fighter by all accounts, with attractive flyaway costs and performance. Its canard design allows for quick “slew and point” maneuvers, allowing it to take full advantage of the modern trend toward helmet-mounted displays, and air-air missiles with much wider boresight targeting cones. Power to weight ratio is good, some “radar profile shaping” techniques have been employed to reduce its signature, and its physical size can also make it a difficult target.
The Gripen has one other asset that is often overlooked: very attractive lifetime operational costs. Each new generation of fighters has proven to be more expensive than its predecessors to operate and maintain, and this is one aspect of the procurement spiral that forces smaller aircraft orders with each new generation of equipment. The JAS-39 was designed from the outset to counter this trend, and lifetime operating costs were given a high priority when making design and equipment decisions.
Equipment commonality and choice are also strengths. Its engine is a derivative of GE’s F404, in wide use on F/A-18 A-D Hornets and many other platforms. A wide variety of international equipment has successfully been tested and integrated with the aircraft including sensors, targeting pods (the LITENING III pod comes as a standard option) and an array of weapons, most recently the MBDA Meteor long-range ramjet air-air missile.
On the industrial front, Saab’s international marketing deal with BAE gave the Swedish aircraft wide global representation, but conflicts of interest and BAE divestitures have left Saab handling international sales. Ties to its parent firms like Investor AB allow it to offer an attractive program of industrial offsets to potential owners.
Hungary is one such customer. Their industrial development program has gone very well, and in September 2007 they described their experiences at Exercise Spring Flag 2007, held in May at Italy’s Decimomannu air base in Sardinia with combat assets from France (E-3 AWACS), Germany (F-4F ICE), Italy (AV-8B Harrier, F-16C, Tornado ECR and Eurofighter Typhoon), NATO (E-3 AWACS), and Turkey (F-16C) with tanker support from Italy, the UK and the US. The Gripen’s 100% sortie rate was impressive, and it also generated some interesting comments from Hungarian Air Force Colonel Nandor Kilian:
“In Hungary we just don’t have large numbers of aircraft to train with, but in Spring Flag we faced COMAO (combined air operations) packages of 20, 25 or 30 aircraft. The training value for us was to work with that many aircraft on our radar – and even with our limited experience we could see that the Gripen radar is fantastic. We would see the others at long ranges, we could discriminate all the individual aircraft even in tight formations and using extended modes. The jamming had almost no effect on us – and that surprised a lot of people.
Other aircraft couldn’t see us – not on radar, not visually2 – and we had no jammers of our own with us. We got one Fox 2 kill3 on a F-16 who turned in between our two jets but never saw the second guy and it was a perfect shot.
Our weapons and tactics were limited by Red Force rules, and in an exercise like this the Red Force is always supposed to die, but even without our AMRAAMs and data links we got eight or 10 kills, including a Typhoon. Often we had no AWACS or radar support of any kind, just our regular onboard sensors – but flying like that, ‘free hunting,’ we got three kills in one afternoon. It was a pretty good experience for our first time out.”
To keep the basic Gripen relevant, block upgrades occur about every 3 years. Block 19, due in 2009, integrates IRIS-T SRAAM (Short-Range Air-to-Air Missile), NATO’s Link-16 in addition to Gripen’s own shared awareness datalink, and the Cobra helmet-mounted sight. Block 20 in 2012 is expected to include enhancements to the PS-05/A radar, and the ROVER close-air-support data link used with such success by American forces..
Unfortunately, the Gripen has lost out or been absent from consideration in important export competitions in Austria (Eurofighter), Finland (F-18), Poland (F-16), Switzerland (F-18, but second opportunity now), and Singapore (F-15SG Strike Eagle to replace A-4 Skyhawks). A number of potential opportunities are detailed below, but existing orders will not keep the JAS-39 in production past 2012. Meanwhile, Sweden may be about to downsize its Gripen force to 100 JAS-39 C/D aircraft, flooding the market with second-hand models and choking new production opportunities. All this in a market where export orders overall have been below Saab’s expectations.
Can the Gripen production line survive?
A number of factors could be cited as reasons for Saab finding itself in this situation: purchasing slowdowns across the industry, the inertia of existing relationships and equipment standardization, Sweden’s lack of geopolitical weight in contrast to countries like the USA, France or Russia. In Singapore’s case, its status as a single engine lightweight fighter with limited range also hurt it – as did its partner BAE’s greater interest in promoting its own Eurofighter.
Still, the bottom line is that the Gripen was dependent on exports for profitability, as a result of the unprofitable contract it signed with the Swedish government. The government’s ability to assist with foreign export orders has proven to be very limited, and envisaged export orders have been more in line with skeptics’ predictions rather than corporate hopes.
JAS-39NG: A Way Forward?
One way forward is through upgrades. The JAS-39s on offer to Denmark, India, the Netherlands, Norway, and others all offer a number of important improvements beyond the present C/D versions.
Regardless of the exact upgrade sets offered, the hope remains the same: that appropriate upgrades would allow the Gripen to continue to offer better performance and features than the F-16 and MiG-29, including new variants like Russia’s new thrust-vectoring MiG-35 and Lockheed’s AESA-equipped F-16 Block 60 “Desert Falcon” flown by the UAE. At the same time, goes this thinking, upgrades would allow the Gripen to compete on more even terms with more expensive fighters like the Rafale, F/A-18 Super Hornet, etc. In those competitions, Gripen would be positioned as a lower-budget option with “close enough” capabilities overall, and outright advantages in key areas.
That competitiveness is essential. Like France’s Rafale, which also depended on exports to finance its ongoing development, the Gripen is finding itself dependent on home government handouts in order to remain technologically competitive. That’s less than ideal, but given the Gripen and Rafale’s status as the future backbones of their respective national air forces, non-competitiveness is hardly an option. Absent further foreign sales, therefore, the question for both aircraft is how badly future upgrade costs will eat into their home market’s fighter procurement and maintenance budgets. Which explains Saab’s eagerness to escape this trap.
Saab approach to Gripen NG was a departure from past practice. Instead of selecting key technologies and modifying them to become proprietary, as was the case for the F404 engine (Volvo RB12), Gripen NG will use far more “off the shelf” parts. Its new engine will feature minimal changes, and so the upgraded engine is expected to cost 20% less than the its RB12 predecessor. Suppliers like Honeywell and Rockwell were reportedly asked provide their products, and let Saab handle integration. There are even rumors that Saab’s NG may embrace the same HMDS pilot helmet used on the F-35; existing Gripens currently use Saab’s Cobra.
The first set of chosen enhancements will improve the pilot’s situational awareness.
An IRST (infra-red search and track) system will improve target detection, without running the risk that the Gripen will reveal itself by emitting detectable electro-magnetic energy. IRST systems are useful against some ground targets, and all aerial targets. They especially enhance performance against opponents with “low observable” radar stealth enhancements, by giving their pilot additional detection and targeting options. If medium-long range infrared guided missiles like MICA-IR or NCADE are integrated in Gripen at some future date, the IRST system will even provide missile guidance beyond visual range, without triggering the target’s radar warning receivers.
Link 16 is the other major situational awareness upgrade for Gripen Demo/NG. Gripens already come with a proprietary datalink that allows them to see the same picture of the battlefield, but the NATO Link-16 standard adds the ability to share with other aircraft, air defense radars, ships, etc. (see June 11/07 entry, below).
Integration of an AESA radar in place of the present mechanically-scanned PS-05 is an important future selling point, and has been promised in several of Saab’s recent foreign bid submissions. Development has been less smooth. Saab bought Ericsson’s radar group, which makes the Erieye AWACS radar, and began the “Nora” AESA project in 2006. In autumn 2007, Saab changed course and began a radar partnership with Thales for the RBE2-AA AESA radar that will equip Dassault’s Rafale. Then Dassault bought a large stake in Thales, and scuttled the deal in order to cripple a competitor. Saab is now partnered with Selex Galileo to design an ES-05 Raven AESA radar that builds on Selex’s experience with the Vixen 500 AESA, and Ericsson’s PS-05 MESA and Nora experiments. The new radar will use an active electronically scanned array that can be moved mechanically, increasing its total field of view and improving “lock and leave” maneuvers.
Electronic warfare enhancements are also a component of situational awareness these days. Upgrades to this existing capability are not a major addition, but they do help keep the platform current.
Mechanical upgrades are in the works, too.
One of the Gripen’s handicap’s against competing fighters has been its range. A 38% jump in internal fuel capacity will help to offset weight and power increases, while extending the aircraft’s combat air patrol radius to 1,300 km/ 812 miles, and boosting unrefueled range to 2,500 km/ 1,560 miles. The landing gear is repositioned to accommodate those extra fuel cells. A payload increase from 8 to 10 underbody pylons for weapons and fuel also adds to the Gripen’s range, by allowing more external drop tanks. A new underwing 1,700 litre (450 gallon) fuel tank has been flown, and supersonic drop-tanks will also be tested in the future. With the full set of drop tanks, the JAS-39NG’s total flight range is expected to reach 4,075 km/ 2,810 miles.
Hauling all of that around will require a more powerful engine than the current RM12 variant of GE’s popular F404. GE’s F414, produced in partnership with Volvo Aero and in use on the Super Hornet, has already been selected for that requirement. It offers a 25-35% power boost over its predecessor the F404, and the developmental F414 EPE could offer another 20% thrust increase over that in future. Key F414G alterations for the Gripen will include minor changes to the alternator for added aircraft power, and modified Full Authority Digital Electronic Control (FADEC) software that’s modified for single-engine operation, instead of the F/A-18 Super Hornet’s twin-engine configuration.
For now, Saab Group remains on track with the basic Gripen NG program.
In July 2006, Saab received a SEK 1 billion contract from the Swedish government (about $150 million) to improve the aircraft, and develop “Gripen Demo/NG”. This was later followed by a NOK 150 million (about $25 million) agreement with Norway in April 2007, and a set of industrial partnerships with key suppliers.
At present, Saab is leading a team of “Gripen Demo/NG” partners that include:
Saab Aerosystems (Prime contractor and lead system integrator)
Saab Microwave Systems (Raven AESA radar)
Swedish government/FMV (financing and advisory)
General Electric together with Volvo Aero (modified F414 engine)
Finmeccanica subsidiary Selex Galileo (Raven AESA radar)
Martin-Baker (ejection seats)
Thales (IFF, Gripen Demo AESA radar cooperation)
A demonstrator for the new version was rolled out in April 2008, and has been in flight testing since.
Other aircraft upgrades are not advertised at present, but have been the subject of industry rumor and conditional commitments.
Some reports have touted the possibility of a thrust-vectoring engine in future Gripen upgrades, but this was not listed as a selling point in Saab’s submissions to Norway or Denmark, and has not been mentioned in any Gripen Demo descriptions. More probable rumors involve upgrading existing fighters to JAS-39 C+/D+, by adding the improved F414G engine.
Other reports over the years have focused on a carrier-capable Sea Gripen. That’s usually a very difficult conversion, but Saab can take advantage of the aircraft’s natural STOL design. It can fly from a 6×900 meter/ 20×2,950 foot runway, and land in 600 meters or less – without a catapult, an arrester hook or a braking chute.
The Sea Gripen would add new undercarriage and nose gear to cope with higher sink rate forces and catapult launches, strengthen the existing Gripen NG’s tail hook and some airframe sections, and upgrade anti-corrosion protection. Launch options would include both catapult (CATOBAR) and “ski jump” ramp short take-off (STOBAR) capabilities, with maximum launch weight about 1/3 lower for STOBAR launches. Carrier landing speed is already in the required range under 150 knots, but the current 15 foot/sec sink rate needs to be able to reach 25 foot/sec.
India was the initial Sea Gripen sales target; Dec 29/09 materials indicate that this option was raised in Saab’s response to the M-MRCA RFI. India picked the MiG-29K and its own future Tejas LCA Naval variant for its carriers, however, and Gripen is not currently an M-MRCA contender. Sea Gripens also have a possible future role in Brazil as a naval aircraft on INS Sao Paolo, or as a backup choice to Britain’s F-35C Lightning IIs on its new CVF carriers. Saab had indicated that it would spend up to half of Gripen NG’s development budget on this variant, if it found a partner. In May 2011, however, an announcement seemed to indicate that the firm was beginning to move forward on its own, with development centered in the UK.
JAS-39 Gripen: Sales Opportunities
Time will tell whether the JAS-39 Gripen’s unique combination of performance, price, and life-cycle benefits will find enough buyers in the end, or if it will go down in history as the twilight of Sweden’s indigenous combat aircraft designs. Thus far, buyers have included Sweden (195), South Africa (28), the Czech Republic (14 lease/buy), Hungary (14 lease/buy), and Thailand (6 + 6 optional).
Meanwhile, Gripen International continues to pursue sales possibilities worldwide. Reports from Jane’s based on a 2006 Bloomberg interview outlined Saab CEO Ake Svensson’s thoughts about the aircraft’s potential export customers in the coming years. Subsequent developments have closed off some opportunities, and added others:
There is an lease requirement for up to 12 aircraft in the Baltic states (Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia), but no active pursuit yet;
Bulgaria stated in 2004 that it has a requirement for 20 aircraft – Sofia issued a Request for Information (RFI) to Saab in May 2006. A 2011 RFI cut that to 8 planes;
Croatia was looking for 12 aircraft, with an in-service date of 2011 – vid. March 27/08 entry re: the RFI. Delayed, but still considered an opportunity;
Denmark was not mentioned in the Jane’s report, but an offer has been made for replacement of their F-16 fleet with about 48 JAS-39DKs instead of F-35As. The Gripen remains a competitor, but the country now expects to buy just 25-35 fighters (F-35A, F/A-18E/F, or JAS-39NG), and won’t make a decision until 2014. Gripen is a long shot.
Greece was looking to purchase a second tranche of 30-40 advanced fighters, with the process expected to begin in 2006. That was delayed, then hope was held out, then the 2010 fiscal collapse happened;
Hungary is looking to phase out its fleet of MiG-29s, and is already a customer. Saab thinks another 6 aircraft are possible;
Malaysia is limping along with MiG-29Ns until 2015, but isn’t happy. Saab sees a chance to sell about 12-18 fighters;
Slovenia requires 40 aircraft, if they can afford that;
Switzerland was expected to start the process to replace 3 of its F-5 squadrons later in 2006, but starts and stops have plagued TTE. The competition is moving forward again, and Saab’s Gripen competes against the F/A-18 E/F Super Hornet, Rafale, and Eurofighter.
Brazil’s canceled F-X program is underway again, as Swensson had hoped, and Gripen is an official contender. Brazil’s industry prefers the Gripen, but the Lula government preferred France’s Rafale. Where will the Roussef government line up?;
India’s M-MRCA competition for 120-190 fighters. JAS-39IN is out, now it’s between Eurofighter & Rafale…. if it can finish without a restart.
The Netherlands is a Tier 2 F-35 partner, but political pressure forced a competing bid and Saab submitted one in 2008. The bid is considered a long shot at this point, but pressure on the F-35A is rising in Parliament;
Romania was looking for 40 aircraft, but cut that down to 24 used F-16C/D Block 25s. Parliament may intervene to change that decision.
Norway had a requirement for 44 fighter aircraft to replace its F-16s. EADS withdrew its Eurofighter, then the F-35A won.
Thailand was looking to replace its aging F-5s, and Gripen won. A follow on order brings the total to 12 JAS-39C/Ds.