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.
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.
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.
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.
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