A nice view of the weapons stations on the Gripen demonstrator
by Ajai Shukla
A truncated version of this article was in Business Standard, 5th Dec 11
There are celebrations at Linkoping, the home of the Gripen NG fighter, which is barely two hours from Stockholm on one of Sweden’s ultra-friendly inter-city trains. On Tuesday, the Swiss government announced its selection of the Gripen-D fighter for the Swiss Air Force, rejecting the Eurofighter Typhoon and the Dassault Rafale.
“If confirmed, a win in Switzerland [according to the Swiss constitution, this might even require a national referendum] will provide a much-needed boost to Saab's status as a fighter manufacturer, after its Gripen was eliminated in another high-profile contest in India,” observed aviation magazine, Flight Global.
India has decided differently, short-listing the Typhoon and Rafale over the Gripen NG in New Delhi’s ongoing selection of 126 medium, multi-role combat aircraft (MMRCA). But, visiting Linkoping, Broadsword saw little despondency. With India’s defence ministry (MoD) uncomfortable with the idea of doubling its $10.5 billion allocation for those heavy fighters, Gripen is not yet ruling itself out of the MMRCA competition.
“It’s not over till it’s over,” says Eddy de la Motte, Head of Gripen Export. “We have been and are still confident that Gripen is the perfect match for the IAF as well as for the Indian defence and aviation industry.”
Eddy de la Motte also points out that Gripen has provided details of its Sea Gripen fighter (which is still being developed) in response to an Indian Navy’s enquiry.
Executives in Linkoping all insist that the Gripen NG --- the New Generation version of the current Gripen-D fighter --- would provide India with the fighter it needs for a far cheaper procurement and operating cost. They say it would be one-third the cost of the Typhoon and the Rafale, calculated on a “through-life” basis.
“Our experience of operating the Gripen is that it costs US $4000 per flight hour. This calculation is based on the experience of 150,000 hours flown,” says Peter Ringh, a senior executive with the Gripen programme.
I tour the Linkoping facility, which Sweden set up in 1930 after it was prevented from buying fighters because of the embargoes that preceded World War II. Over the next eight decades, a fierce focus on aerospace R&D --- 20% of Saab's aerospace revenues go back into research --- has driven the development of several world-beating aircraft at Linkoping. These include the Saab-21A in 1945 (the world’s first aircraft with an ejection seat); the Saab 29 Tunnan (the first aircraft with swept wings); and the Viggen, which the Indian Air Force had selected in the 1970s as a ground strike aircraft. But an angry Washington, seething after India’s nuclear experiment in Pokhran, vetoed the supply of the Viggen’s American-origin engines to India. The IAF bought the Jaguar instead.
“In 70 years in the aeronautics business, Saab has built more than 4000 aircraft. This includes 500 airliners, of which 450 are still operating,” says de la Motte.
Today, Linkoping is dedicated to the Gripen. Over 200 Gripens currently fly with five air forces --- Sweden, South Africa, Thailand, Czech Republic and Hungary --- and Switzerland will be the sixth. Gripen is also a leading contender (along with the Rafale) in the Brazilian Air Force’s purchase of medium fighters.
But India demanded a more capable MMRCA than the current Gripen-D; and Saab offered its futuristic Gripen NG fighter, of which only a single prototype exists. This is numbered 39-7; the first Gripen test aircraft was numbered 39-1… and this is the 7th test fighter).
Housed in a secluded hangar, the Gripen Demonstrator (as the first prototype of the Gripen NG is called) is discernibly bigger than the Gripen-D. The earlier Gripens are light, agile fighters, which can land and take off from 800-metre stretches of regular highway. A carefully inbuilt ability to be refuelled and rearmed within just 10 minutes of landing allow a small number of Gripen-Ds to fly as many sorties as a significantly larger number of heavier-maintenance fighters. But, along with low maintenance, India wanted a heavier fighter, with more weaponry and a longer range and endurance. Enter the Gripen NG.
“The NG is essentially a Mark III Gripen fighter. The Gripen A/B, a 12-tonne light fighter, was the Mark I. This went up to 14-tonnes in the Gripen C/D, which can be considered the Mark II. Our latest development, the Gripen NG, will be a 16.5 tonne medium fighter,” explains de la Motte.
That extra weight includes an additional tonne of fuel. Along with two 450-gallon fuel pods on the wings, this allows the Gripen NG to fly a staggering 4,100 kilometres. On internal fuel alone, it flies 2,500 kilometres. That exceeds the range of much bigger aircraft like the Typhoon.
Moving the undercarriage to the wings for enlarging the fuel tanks also created space for two additional hard points on which weapons are mounted. The Gripen NG now has ten stations, extraordinary for a 16-tonne fighter. Flying into combat, it would typically carry two IRIS-T air-to-air missiles on its wing tips, which can shoot down enemy aircraft 25 kilometres away; two Meteor beyond-visual-range (BVR) missiles, deadly accurate at ranges in excess of 100 kilometres; two fuel pods with 900 gallons of fuel; three GBU-12 precision-guided bombs for ground targets; and a reconnaissance pod.
To power all this weight, the Gripen-D’s General Electric F-404 engine is being replaced with the advanced F-414 engine, an upgrade that is common to India’s Tejas fighter. With thrust increased from 18,000 pounds to 22,000 pounds, the Gripen NG already super-cruises, or flies supersonic in economy mode.
The Gripen Demonstrator has demonstrated the capability to supercruise at Mach 1.2, and exceed Mach 1.6 on afterburner. Gripen engineers say that they have still to optimise the air intakes, which they expect will boost engine power by another 25%.
But the NG’s real strength is the cockpit, which is a fighter pilot's delight. Using Saab’s acknowledged data link capability, information is drawn from multiple sensors inside and outside the aircraft, including satellites. A terabyte-capacity computer screens out superfluous information, providing the pilot only the best input of each category. This allows him to concentrate on battle, rather than handling information.
“We do that by sensor fusion… using data fusion technology. This covers information coming in from radars, IRST, EW sensors, targeting pods, 3rd party sensors (including air-land-sea) and also information from the weapons,” says the Gripen test pilot who is conducting me around the fighter.
The pilot also reveals that the Gripen demonstrator is ready for being fitted with the Selex ES 05 Raven AESA radar. “This will be capable of electronically steering radar elements in specific directions. The current AESA radars have 70% coverage on each side. We will put that on a swashplate, which would give us 100% coverage, a big advantage in BVR. We can fire a missile and turn away without entering the enemy fighter’s weapons engagement zone, and yet be able to guide our missile to the hand-over point. This is called the F-Pole manoeuvre, which means that you fire and then turn away so that you are outside his radar pickup… but can still control the missile,” he explains.
The Gripen demonstrator will also have the ability to hand over the missile in mid-flight to another aircraft.
And finally, the pilot has satellite communications, permitting him to communicate across the globe. In a sensitive situation --- such as an attack that could start, or escalate a war, or even on a nuclear strike mission --- the pilot might need to take permission before launching weapons. This could be done over the satellite radio.
“During the Indian trials, when the Gripen successfully took off from Leh, the pilot called Linkoping on the satellite radio to say all is well,” said one of the Gripen NG pilots.