Could Saab make Gripen go unmanned? And why bother?

One of the more surprising bits of news at the Paris air show was the disclosure by Saab’s chief executive of early studies into enabling the Gripen to fly as an unmanned asset. Here’s a company-provided image showing how that might look:

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The only time that combat aircraft usually go unmanned is when an aged type transitions into becoming an aerial target (eg the QF-4 Phantom and soon the QF-16 with the US Air Force), or when a nation accuses another of having modified something for use as a “death drone” (ie US claims of WMD-equipped Iraqi L-29s some years back).

So why would an operator want to do this with a Gripen? The example given by another Saab exec was the kind of long-range reconnaissance mission performed over Libya by NATO assets like the Swedish air force’s JAS 39s in 2011. These didn’t go as deep into the country as needed, due to the maximum range of the combat search and rescue helicopters which would go and recover a downed pilot.

So, says Saab, why not pop a load of long-range fuel tanks on a Gripen and remove the now-optional pilot? The company has previously flown unmanned demonstrators like the Sharc and Filur, and the jump wouldn’t be that big, it reckons.

The press pack seemed a bit under-sold on this concept: maybe just adding air-to-air refuelling for the CSAR helos might be an easier and cheaper option?

The company also revealed that it has cut metal on its first of three dedicated Gripen E test aircraft, in support of a planned 82-unit deal with Sweden and Switzerland. Here’s a slide showing the general schedule for getting aircraft JAS 39-8 through -10 into the air.

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One Response to Could Saab make Gripen go unmanned? And why bother?

  1. Rio VonWolf 8 September, 2013 at 8:47 pm #

    Saab has had this capability since the Viggen. Nothing new.

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