Schrödinger’s Griffin

The JAS 39E Gripen is something of a paradox. It’s at the same time both a mature concept dating back to the late 80’s and a fighter so new the first deliveries aren’t planned until next year. The program is still reportedly on schedule while the first flight was pushed back and there are persistent rumours that the following 39-9 and 39-10 have been delayed due to the recent upgrades. While the two-seat Foxtrot-version is developed by Brazil for the needs of the Brazilian Air Force, any Finnish order for conversion trainers would be assembled at the normal production line in Sweden. And despite all of this, the Echo is still happily continuing as one of the favourites for the HX-program.

Grip 290
JAS 39C (cn 39290) demonstrating one of the key issues with the Charlie-generation of the Gripen – the limited number of stations available to weapons and external stores such as fuel tanks and sensors. This is being adressed with an increase in the number of hardpoints for the Echo-generation. Source: Own picture

The answer to the latest paradox is multi-facetted. One of the key factors is size. The small(ish) Gripen is the sole single-engined fighter in the HX-competition besides the F-35, and small size means fewer parts, lower fuel consumption, and overall lower acquisition and operating costs (ceteris paribus). Saab is confident that this will play a major part in the equation, or as country manager Magnus Skogberg puts it:

We can deliver with margin within 7 to 10 billion Euros

But as we have discussed earlier, with a set budget and a cap on the number of aircrafts, the interesting part is how much combat capability can be delivered within these two? On paper, this does seem to favour bigger and more capable aircraft, but that would be to overlook how tight the 10 billion Euro cap actually is as well as overlooking a number of the Gripen’s stronger cards.

39-8, the first ‘Echo’, flies with IRIS-T wingtip mounted missiles and several weapons pylons. Picture courtesy of Saab.

The whole concept behind the Gripen, the earlier A/B/C/D as well as the current E/F versions, is operations against a numerically superior peer-level enemy. This puts significant demands upon the ability to get the most out of every single aircraft, from the ground up. To begin with the aircrafts get a large number of flight hours during combat operations, thanks to the quick turnaround time. This is something the Swedish jets demonstrated to their Finnish hosts at exercise Ruska 2017 last autumn. The same exercise also demonstrated the ability of the Gripen to seamlessly fit into the Finnish air combat system. This is no surprise, as the development of the Finnish and Swedish air combat doctrines have been heavily influenced by each other, including dispersed basing and operations with limited support equipment.

At the other end of the spectrum, Saab has put significant works into making the OODA-loop as short as possible. The key issue here is to make the man-machine-interface as effective as possible, providing the (outnumbered) pilot with the information he or she needs in a way that he or she can quickly process it and make the necessary split-second decisions. This is made possible by the completely fused sensor and sensor control system, which includes not only the Selex ES-05 Raven AESA radar, but also an IRST (the smaller sister of the Typhoon’s PIRATE), the passive electronic warfare sensors, as well as datalinks. The combination of IRST and passive EW sensors is of special interest, as they are both Saab’s answer regarding how to counter stealth fighters as well as the key to executing completely ‘silent’ intercepts.

J35J wings
Not too long ago, the fighter that made up half the Finnish Air Force was built by Saab. These kinds of traditions have a tendency to echo. Note that the Draken was a pioneer in IRST-sensors as well. Source: Own picture

As Skogberg briefs the gathered Finnish media at the Finnish Air Force 100 anniversary air show, he is interrupted by a roar as J 35J Draken ‘Johan 56‘ of the Swedish Air Force Historical Flight does it’s practice run, a physical reminder that less than 20 years ago it was a Saab-built fighter that defended the Finnish skies. This obviously points to another key aspect. Back in the Cold War Sweden stored surplus Draken-versions, ready to send them over to Finland in case of conflict (Finland was bound by the Paris Peace Treaty to have a cap on the number of fighters operated, but had instead trained a surplus number of pilots). While the same exact procedure is unlikely to be relevant today, Sweden is still arguably Finland’s closest partner, and having fighters which can use the exactly same munitions and support equipment would be a significant benefit.

Försvarsmakten, the Swedish Defence Forces, is the single most important partner of the Finnish Defence Forces. This simple fact is bound to be reflected both in the national security evaluation, but also when looking into what kind of operational capabilities can be expected from the 39E Gripen in HX. Source: Own picture

Crucially, much of this fits right into the Memorandum of Understanding signed by the Finnish and Swedish ministers of defence earlier this month. The MoU outlines that Finland and Sweden “will achieve increased operational effect through combined use of resources, [and] increased interoperability” in a “defence cooperation [that] covers peace, crises and war.” This is all based on the fact that “the ability to act jointly also raises the threshold against incidents and armed attacks”.

However, when the Finnish Air Force is looking for an operational fighter to fill the gap left by the Hornets the question is if the Swedish fighter is just a bit too far into the future. The first deliveries to FMV, the Swedish Defence Material Administration, will take place next year. However, the first deliveries from FMV to the Swedish Air Force are only set for 2021, the year of the HX decision, where they will reach full operational capability only in 2025, the year of the first HX deliveries. Saab insists that the Echo is a very mature and proven system, and it is true that FMV will handle parts of the test and evaluation which in other nations would be part of the air force’s T&E program. Still, there’s little room for error if the Finnish Air Force is to be able to evaluate any kind of operational configuration of the Echo. Saab is trusting that they will be able to do this thanks to the complete decoupling of hardware and software which they have made. So far it seems to be working, and Saab’s stated goal is to push upgrades for the operational Echo at even shorter intervals (and hence smaller in scope) compared to Charlie’s three-year cycles.

As far as we understand, no-one is doing avionics architecture as we are

11 thoughts on “Schrödinger’s Griffin

  1. Peter

    Thanks for an excellent article as always! Did you have a chance to review slovakias decision to NOT go for the Gripen?

  2. jokuvaan

    Gripen E/F’s engine and control laws are not new, so overall technical risk is quite small(in fighter business scale). First flight of the Demonstrator was already in May 2008, that’s a long time ago.

    At the moment Gripen E test aircraft is capable of doing 3 flights per day. So mature level in 2025 is not a problem Saab’s problem is that flight trials will begin next year and many features must work already then. Plus, they need to have same fighter in many places at the same time.

  3. Nakki

    Draken was good for fishing. Sound pressure only drove the fish out of the water. Flying iron bar.

  4. Borén

    “mall size means fewer parts, lower fuel consumption, and overall lower acquisition and operating costs ”

    The problem with this is that there isn’t any concrete evidence to back up these claims and rely solely on Saab’s marketing material. Also according to some analysts the Gripen is too expensive for what it is.

    Also so far only 96 JAS-39E/Fs have been ordered and if the plane doesn’t get more orders the production volumes will most likely remain low which would most likely increase the price of spare parts and upgrades. This is one of the reasons why FiAF selected the F-18 in 90s.

    “The combination of IRST and passive EW sensors is of special interest, as they are both Saab’s answer regarding how to counter stealth fighters ”

    So far IRSTs have been ineffective at countering stealth aircraft (the F-35 also has features that reduce the planes IR signature) and why are all the important manufacturers investing in stealth (for example: Tempest, FCAS and J-20) if stealth can be so easily countered? More likely Saab just doesn’t have the resources to design and manufacture a proper 5th machines so the only thing they have left is to wave theirs hands and make things up.

    In my opinion the biggest advantage the Gripen has is that it’s favored by certain politicians, so if the Gripen is selected it’s probably selected for political reasons.

    1. jokuvaan

      Gripen’s silent attack concept does not rely on IRST, it’s about radar energy and how it travels between two points. If one person uses a flashlight in the dark and other one doesnt, you dont need to be rocket scientist to realise who sees who first.

      Sensor sensitivity and computer power will enable single fighter to perform passive target triangulation and combined sensor data from other air, sea and land sensors will naturally improve this accuracy.

      1. Borén

        This assumption has several flaws.

        Firstly it’s not guaranteed that Gripen’s can detect emissions from an AESA radar with sophisticated LPI functions.

        Secondly targeting data can be provided from a different aircraft, for example by another fighter or by an AEW plane. Now add few 5th gen. fighters and EW assets and things aren’t looking so good for the Gripen.

        Thirdly the F-35 can also do that but better and the F-35 ia also all around better.

    2. Kristian

      A few years ago Jane´s commissioned a study into cost per flight hour for a large number of aircraft. JAS 39C got $4700 which was *by far* the cheapest of all fighters.

      The E version is even cheaper.

      1. Borén

        And yet the Slovakians estimated the F-16V to have ~8% lower total lifecycle costs than the Gripen. So either those figures are flawed or don’t take in account Gripen’s relatively expensive spare parts (due to low production volumes).

        Back in early 90s Finnish Air Force estimated that the Gripen had slightly higher total lifecycle cost than the F-18 (while also being inferior). For example Gripen’s GE F404 derivative Volvo RM12 was estimated to be twice as expensive as the original engine.

        I’d imagine that the things are even worse for the Gripen E since it’s supposed to be an advanced jet with sophisticated sensors and EW systems.

    3. Arne Lidmark

      Gripen is not favoured by politics, except in the case of Sweden. But all other fighters are.

  5. Tetrahedron

    Yes, and when the Norwegians bought F-35s they also concluded that the F-35s would have considerably cheaper operating an life-time costs than the Gripens.

    Of course, the Norwegian estimates were arrived at by using their current flight costs for their fleet of F-16s to stand in for the Gripens, while assuming one-in-ten of the Gripens would crash every year and so be total write-off, while the F-35 would wonderfully keep flying with no mishaps.

    As you say, there a A LOT of funny business in how these evaluations are arrived at.

    However, the government budget for the Swedish air force is public, and the flight hours and maintenance costs for the Swedish air force operating these things bear out that they really are what the study commissioned from the IHS Jane’s.

    And that was done specifically to meet the EXTREMELY fishy Norwegian accounting by which the F-35 MUST the cheapest plane on offer to fly and operate, and the Gripen as a consequence an lethally expensive proposition.

    In a procurement process that saw the Eurofighter consortium pull out of the bidding early, after concluding it was rigged from the start. Which was later borne out by leaks from the US diplomatic channels about negotiations with the Norwegians to ensure the F-35 would be selected.

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