A Visit to the Griffin’s Nest – The Pilot

One of the more interesting encounters during my visit to Saab was with one of the seven test pilots Saab has. André Brännström is a former Swedish Air Force pilot, who started his career flying the J 35 Draken in the early 90’s, before moving on to the JA 37 Viggen and eventually the JAS 39 Gripen. Having been part of the air force’s OT&E (Operational Test and Evaluation) unit charged with testing out new upgrades and procedures and developing tactics and practices to account for these, he eventually transitioned over to Saab three years ago. Flight testing at Saab includes both ‘technical’ (the testing all aircrafts have to go through) as well as ‘tactical’ flight testing (testing out new weapons and improvements to the sensors and avionics of the aircraft). For the latter, Saab has a complete assortment of the dummy versions of Gripen’s weapons. This places demands on the pilots to keep up to date with how the air force operates their fighters, and Brännström still occasionally flies for the air force to keep in touch with the operator’s point of view.

The pilot

One example of the later was the exercise ACE15 last year, where he amongst other things got to meet a Finnish F/A-18C Hornet in a 1-vs-1 scenario in the skies over Lapland, something which we Finnish visitors were eager to hear more about.

“Well” he explained, “the Hornet is a good aircraft. But this was a rather young pilot, and I know where I want my Gripen to be. Speed, altitude, if I get him there, well…”

We decided to leave the topic there.

In the hangar were we met, a single JAS 39C stood parked. ‘39214’ sported the cat paw of the Såtenäs-based F 7 Skaraborg Wing, and represented the latest standard in 39C development, what Saab calls the Edition 20. In practice, this means that the aircraft features improvements to the radar and adds the capability to employ METEOR long-range air-to-air missiles and GBU-39 Small Diameter Bombs, a 110 kg guided bomb with pop-out wings that give it the ability to glide towards it target, both of which will be key weapons in the arsenal of the 39E when it enters service. The Edition 20 is to be introduced in regular service within the next few weeks.

39214

The editions represent the Saab way of handling upgrades to the aircraft. Instead of taking major leaps in the form of one or two mid-life updates during the lifetime of an aircraft, they roll out smaller updates at regular intervals. The idea behind this is that the fighter should be at its best all the time, and not only during the first years after the update, as well as to lessen the technological risk. The pressure to include new features of uncertain long-term value and unproven technology becomes smaller when both customer and supplier knows that it is a shorter time to the next round of improvements. This is made possible due to the tight cooperation between the Air Force, the Swedish Defence Materiel Administration (FMV), and Saab, as evident by the fact that Saab is able to “borrow” (there are certainly both money and contractual issues involved) operational aircraft such as ‘39214’ for testing, while the air force can borrow test pilots if the need arises. Nowhere is this close collaboration more visible than in Linköping itself, which houses not only Saab (at the Linköping City Airport), but also FMV’s Flight Test Centre Linköping (co-located with the Swedish Air Force’s Helicopter Wing at the Malmen Airbase).

Besides the aircraft lay two dummy IRIS-T short-range air-to-air missiles. The IRIS-T belongs to the new generation of highly agile missile, making shots over the shoulder possible with the use of a helmet-mounted display, a piece of gear described by Brännström as “great”. When talking about the impact of high off-boresight missiles such as the IRIS-T and the AIM-9X currently used by Finnish F/A-18C, it was clear that they were game changers:

“No longer can you be safe just because you’re here”, explained Brännström and indicated one fighter behind another one. “There are certain differences I can’t talk about [between the AIM-9X and the IRIS-T], but this [the IRIS-T] is the one I’d buy.” Presumably the proliferation of agile air-to-air missiles have also lead to the fact that sustained turn rate, one of Gripen’s strong points, have increased in importance relative to instantaneous turn rate. The Gripen, like most modern fighters, is built so that the pilot doesn’t have to move his hands at any point during air combat maneuvers, with all necessary switches and controls being found on the throttle lever and control stick. Hard maneuvers are further simplified by the control systems, which automatically limits steering and throttle output based on the current load condition to make sure that the aircraft (or external stores) isn’t overstressed, allowing the pilot to pull the stick and lever as hard as he wants to, knowing that he won’t break anything.

The data link capability is something Saab is very proud of, and while many fighters today can share information through the use of systems such as Link 16, the Gripen has some further unspecified additional capability as well, causing Brännström to reflect that in a mixed formation with different fighters, “I believe I’d be the happiest one.”

Piloting again

A Visit to the Griffin’s Nest – The Plane

The JAS 39E Gripen is one of the foremost candidates for replacing the F/A-18C Hornet in the Finnish Air Force under the HX-program. As such, I was naturally interested when I was approached by Saab about joining in on a visit by Finnish media to the Gripen production line in Linköping.

Interestingly enough, this is not the first time Gripen is offered to Finland. Back in the early 90’s, the original 39A (and corresponding two-seater 39B) was offered as a replacement for Finland’s aging fleet of MiG-21Bis and J35 Draken, another product out of Saab’s Linköping-factory. It eventually lost out to the Hornet, for a number of different reasons. Will it be second time lucky for “The Smart Fighter”?

Since then, the Gripen has passed through a number of iterations, including the major change from the ‘Swedish’ 39A/B, via the internationalised 39C/D version, to the brand new 39E/F set to fly later this year. It is this version, and only this version, that will be offered to Finland. Despite the Finnish Air Force opening up for alternatives such as more than one fighter being offered, Saab confirmed that they will not offer the C/D, or a mixed package of 39C’s and E’s, despite planning to keep the production line for the older version up in parallel with the newer one past 2020. This is due to a number of reasons, mainly the threats the HX would be expected to face in case of a conflict (i.e. late-versions of the Su-27/30/35-family and the T-50), as well as the Finnish range requirements.

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The 39E Gripen mock-up ‘002’ showing the broadened lower fuselage allowing for the carriage of three METEOR long-range air-to-air missiles and a targeting pod. Source: author

The 39E is in many ways a brand new fighter, despite sharing an outward similarity to the older versions. The main landing gear have been moved outwards, making room for a considerably more internal fuel and extra weapon stations in a broader lower fuselage. The upper part of the fuselage has a smoother transition between the fuselage and the wing root, which is now structurally a part of the main fuselage element, unlike earlier versions where the whole wing was bolted onto the fuselage.

However, the core of the new aircraft is in the sensors and electronics. The heart of the combat systems is a brand new active-electronically scanned (AESA) radar called Raven ES-05 with a ‘swashplate’, a fancy name for a tilting device that makes it possible to get better coverage at greater offset angles by turning the radar antenna towards the target. This represents the cutting edge in radar technology, and information from the radar is fused with data from other sensors onboard the aircraft, as well as information received over the data link from friendly aircraft and ground/surface units. The information is then presented on a new wide-angle display as a single pre-processed picture of who else is moving about in the neighbourhood. This is in stark contrast to the current way of having to constantly cross-reference different sensors on smaller multi-function displays to maintain the ‘fused picture’ in ones head.

All of this is powered by the General-Electric F414-GE-39E, a larger and stronger derivative of the F404 that powers the Hornet and, in the form of the RM12, the legacy Gripen. Compared to the RM12, the F414 provides roughly 20% higher max thrust, meaning that the new version should have the extra power needed to handle the additional avionics and sensors, as well as to keep the aircraft as nimble as it predecessor in spite of the significant increase in max take-off weight.

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The Dash Seven carrying a mixed load of air-to-air missiles and laser-guided bombs. Source: Stefan Kalm/Copyright Saab AB

An interesting thing is that the Gripen NG Demo, a modified 39D used as a technology demonstrator for the upcoming 39E, has demonstrated not only the new avionics, but the new lower fuselage, landing gear, and engine as well. This aircraft, named ‘Dash Seven’, first flew back in 2008, and has played a key role in the test program for the 39E. This should considerably lower the technological risk, especially as Saab already has managed to break the cost curve and deliver the JAS 39A/B at a lower life-cycle cost than the earlier Fpl 37 Viggen, with the 39C/D version being better still.

All of this is nice and well, but there is no avoiding the elephant in the room: stealth. Gripen is not designed to be stealthy. Though it features some signature reducing measures, such as a “good paintwork” with radar absorbing characteristics in undisclosed areas of the aircraft (presumably e.g. the wing leading edges), this is in contrast to the Lockheed-Martin F-35.

As discussed earlier here on the blog, stealth is not an on-off issue, but rather a reduction in the radar cross section (and other fields, such as heat signature). If this reduction is good, the radar echo of the aircraft will be small enough that it will be able to ‘see’ (and fire upon) its enemy long before being seen. When working as intended, it makes it possible for a stealthy aircraft to fight with impunity against other fighters who are unable to see it. However, reality is seldom this simple.

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The IRST mock-up on ‘002’. Source: author

To begin with, there have been huge advances in the field of infra-red search and track systems (IRST), and the Gripen will be fitted with the Selex SkyWard-G. While stealth fighters usually have some measure of heat-signature reduction, it is usually much harder to pull off than RCS-reduction, as the friction of the air resistance on the aircraft skin causes heat to build up.

The other issue for a stealth fighter is the need to find its own targets. If it uses its own radar for this, the radar emission from it can be detected at longer ranges than it can provide a readable echo, meaning that, although its adversaries can’t get a radar lock to confirm the exact location of the enemy, they will know that it is out there, as well as getting the general direction it is to be found in. The alternatives are either using an IRST, which levels the playing field, or relying on information from other aircrafts (or ground units) sent via data link.

The strategy Saab has in place for the Gripen is that a combination of better sensors, and sensor fusing, a top-notch data link allowing the aircraft to operate in ‘silent’ mode a larger part of time, a brand new integrated electronic warfare/self-defence suite, as well as the lower cost and lack of numerous trade-offs required from a stealth fighter will make the aircraft viable throughout the lifespan of the HX. This strategy seems viable on paper, but the simple truth is that we do not have a clear idea of how the introduction of stealth fighters will affect air combat beyond 2030. However, the first study performed by the Finnish Air Force as part of the HX program seems to lend some credit to the idea. The main report is secret, but the public abstract provided notes that stealth features are usually optimised for a set radar band, and that new technology, such as MIMO-radars (basically many radars that are linked together to look at a single target) as well as radars operating at diverse amplitudes, could degrade the benefit of stealth.

Regarding the visit to Saab Linköping, I was invited for a one day event centred on the 39E/F Gripen (arriving the evening before) organised for Finnish media, and Saab kindly offered to cover the travel costs. As was made clear already before the trip, the company has put no restrictions or requests regarding what I do with the information given, nor have they reviewed (or asked for permission to review) any of my texts before publication. Instead, the company representatives were very forthcoming with providing us with information and answering questions we had regarding the Gripen or any other of Saab’s projects. Photography was naturally restricted to certain locations and angles.