A Visit to the Griffin’s Nest – The Program

With the 39-7 Gripen NG DEMO and the upcoming roll-out of the first pre-production 39E in the form of 39-8, Saab has laid the cards on the table for the HX-program. They have a very specific product they will run with, and the 39E Gripen does offer a number of selling points directly matching to needs and requests identified by the Finnish Preliminary Report. Any contender wishing to beat the Gripen to the contract will naturally either have to beat Gripen on these issues, or present rivalling advantages that overshadow these. The key points for the Gripen are:

Dispersed basing in subarctic conditions

Finland employs a very specialized wartime strategy of dispersing the aircraft to satellite bases, some in the form of civilian airfields and some in the form of road bases. Here there aircraft are serviced by a staff largely made up of conscripted mechanics, utilizing a very light and mobile logistics organization. With the Russian army fielding long range precision strike capability in the form of e.g. the Iskander short-/medium range ballistic missile, the importance of dispersing the air assets have grown further, and any aircraft vying for the HX-contract need to show that it can handle operations from rugged road bases in harsh winter conditions.

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One of the reasons the F/A-18 Hornet was selected last time was that it had been used successfully by Canada in a similar climate, and that an aircraft built for use aboard aircraft carriers promised to feature the short-field performance and ruggedness needed for this kind of operations. The Hornet has in hindsight proved to be just as good as expected, and the hopes are set high for its successor.

The Gripen in turn was developed when Sweden employed a similar basing strategy that Finland has, and the 39E continues this pedigree. It can be operated without any fixed installations, the total turnaround time in the forest with refuelling and rearming for an air-to-air mission is less than 10 minutes, and a full engine change can be performed in 45 minutes to an hour. Last year the current 39C-version actually took part in a Finnish road base exercise, so there is little doubt that the Gripen will fit into the current Finnish system with little to no modification. The same can probably be said for the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet, but especially in the case of the F-35 there are doubts over how suitable it would be (ironically, these are mainly due to the very cutting edge technology and stealth coating that makes it stand out in the competition). One possible solution is naturally for Lockheed-Martin to offer the carrier-borne F-35C version, which is sturdier and features a number of key modifications. However, the F-35C is also the most expensive version of the three (currently being 18% more expensive than the standard F-35A), which brings us on to the next point…

Price

As noted, the Gripen is a ‘cheap’ fighter (a term which certainly is relative when it comes to modern jet fighters), and it has successfully reversed the cost increase prevalent amongst jet fighters since the Second World War. According to Saab’s numbers, the production and development costs for Gripen is roughly 80-90 % of that of the 37 Viggen, while the operating and maintenance cost is halved compared to the same. A key feature here is the fact that the aircraft is built to be operated in harsh conditions, which translates into a low maintenance need. The fact that unlike the majority of its competition it is single-engined also lessens the maintenance cost, and the bottom line is that the Gripen has a comparatively low life-cycle cost.

The F-35 promises to do the same, and be of comparable cost to current so called ‘Generation 4’ aircraft such as the F-16. According to the Lockheed-Martin, by the time Finland buys the HX, the price will have come down almost 25% (for the F-35A) compared to today’s low-rate initial production aircrafts. However, there are two (or three) issues: one is that this has yet to happen (although at this point there are promising signs), and the other is that these numbers refer to initial procurement costs and not the life-cycle cost for the F-35, earlier stealth aircrafts having been notoriously difficult to maintain on account of their delicate stealth coatings. The third potential issue is that there are question marks whether the rarer F-35C will benefit from the same drop in cost during its production run as the standard F-35A.

Influence over the program

If Finland were to buy 64 Gripens today, we would be the single largest operator of the 39E/F-variant. While more orders are expected from both Brazil and Sweden before the HX-fighters are delivered, Finland would still be a major partner in the project in a way we would not be in any of the competing programs.

This, coupled with the Saab approach of continuously rolling out incremental improvements in the form of their ‘Editions’ would give the Finnish Air Force an unprecedented opportunity to get an airplane tailored to the specific, and sometime unique, demands stemming from how our fighters are operated. Saab also boasts of being able to integrate weapons from all major Western countries, and for a third of the ‘average cost’ (granted a claim that is hard to verify independently).

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Saab also stated that they are ready to operate closely with the Finnish industrial partners that would handle local support and maintenance. As a matter of fact, Saab is already cooperating with e.g. Patria (both as a component supplier and in parallel in the supply chain for Airbus). This is in stark contrast to Lockheed-Martin who demands a very tight control over the maintenance chain for the F-35, and the possibility to overhaul the F-35 locally is indeed one of the main questions raised in light of the preliminary report. The exact form of cooperation Saab is ready to offer is still open, but they are looking into a number of different options, which could include buying components/sub-assemblies from Finnish companies, or even a final assemble line in Finland.

Wild Weasel

The mission of suppression/destruction of enemy air defences (SEAD/DEAD) got a surprising amount of focus in the preliminary report. This is obviously something Saab is looking into, and a so-called Wild Weasel version of the two-seater 39F is in the cards. However, unlike the Boeing EA-18G Growler which is a different version based on the F/A-18F Super Hornet, Saab believes that the baseline 39F should be able to handle the mission with only modifications to the software and by carrying appropriate pods and weapons. This is due to two factors: firstly, the baseline Gripen features a very advanced integrated electronic warfare suite. The exact performance and specifications of this is largely secret, and comparing different EW-suites based on open sources is next to impossible. Still, those with some insight seem to agree with Saab on that their system is top-notch. The second thing is that the 39F features a backseat with the full set of mission critical equipment. Electronic warfare is an extremely task-intensive mission, and all specialised electronic warfare platforms features (at least) two seats Edit: The F-16CJ (Block 50/52) feature the full HARM Targeting System, giving it the possibility to perform the SEAD/DEAD-mission, however, this is arguably more of a multirole fighter recieving yet another mission than a dedicated electronic warfare aircraft. While the F-35 is less vulnerable to detection thanks to its signature reduction, it is only available as a single-seater, and of interest is the fact that the US Navy is set to continue employing the non-stealthy Growler as their SEAD/DEAD-platform of choice even after the introduction of the F-35C.

The fact that Finland only bought seven F/A-18D two-seaters to support 57 F/A-18C single-seaters has since been openly lamented by high-ranking air force personnel, and it seems likely that the HX will feature a higher number of two-seaters relative to its single-seat companions. If Saab is able to create a 39F which is a potent warrior also in the electronic spectrum (and bag the HX-contract), we might very well see an order for 10+ 39F, which besides serving in the operational conversion role also flies as tactical aircraft with a dedicated weapon/sensor operator in the backseat, most likely in the form of dual-trained pilots (as a side-note: if the Finnish Air Force would feature a 39F unit with SEAD as a secondary task, given their unit history it would have to be LAPLSTO).

Timing

The scheduled entry into service of the HX fits very well with the current production plan of the Gripen, with deliveries of the HX starting to take place just as the current orders from Brazil and Sweden are starting to leave empty slots in the production queue. The production schedule of the F-35 is still somewhat more alive, as new orders and confirmations of options are coming in, while some of the other candidates still are struggling with whether their production lines will have closed by the time the HX is supposed to start rolling out of the factory.

The questions

However, all is not roses and unicorns for the Gripen. The two main issues, which have been recounted for numerous times, are whether the 30 year old design still has the growth potential to stay relevant for the upcoming forty or so years, as well as whether a non-stealthy aircraft can survive in tomorrow’s threat environment. Saab believe the answer to both questions is ‘Yes’, and the planned lifespan of the HX is fully within the planned service life of the 39E/F.

Is the Gripen the outright best fighter today? The answer has to be ‘No’. It is hard to overlook the growth potential of the Eurofighter with almost twice the thrust and maximum take-off weight, or the state-off-the-art signature reduction employed on the F-35. However, as discussed above, there is a host of other criteria playing in when choosing which fighter is the best fit for a given air force, and for Finland, the answer to that question just might be the Saab 39E Gripen.

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