IN FOCUS: Sweden acts smart to deliver 'complete air force'

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At its peak military strength during the early years of the Cold War, Sweden boasted an inventory of about 1,000 combat aircraft, giving it one of the largest and best-equipped air forces in the world.

Types operated include the nationally developed Saab J29 Tunnan, or "flying barrel", which was a precursor to later indigenous types such as the Lansen, Draken and Viggen.

While its traditional principal role of national defence remains, the changed-threat scenario facing Stockholm since the demise of the Soviet Union more than 20 years ago means its air arm faces a very different set of challenges today.

saab gripen swedish air force

 Swedish air force  

Gripens provided reconnaisssance for NATO over Libya in 2011

"We are a complete air force, capable of performing a wide range of tasks," says Maj Gen Micael Bydén, the service's chief of staff. "We operate primarily in Sweden, the near-abroad and, where suitable, further."

Saab Gripens provide quick reaction alert cover at home, while a fleet of three Erieye radar-equipped Saab 340s provide airborne early warning and control services. Two modified Gulfstream IVs deliver an electronic warfare capability.

"There are no immediate threats to our country, so we must be able to react individually, or with others," says Bydén.

OVERSEAS COMMITMENT

Swedish involvement in last year's NATO operation "Unified Protector" to safeguard Libyan civilians represented the nation's first such overseas commitment of fighter aircraft since Tunnans were involved in a UN peacekeeping mission in Congo in the early 1960s. Eight Saab Gripens were deployed to NAS Sigonella in Sicily from April 2011 - the first wave leaving Sweden within 23h of a political decision being taken - to provide the Alliance with much-needed tactical reconnaissance services. Roughly 580 missions were flown.

As well as highlighting parliament's willingness to allow such a non-combat role to be performed for the first time in decades, the involvement over Libya also vindicated investment decisions made by the service in the preceding years, says head of air force requirements Lt Col Rickard Nyström.

Referring to past decisions to acquire Rafael Litening digital reconnaissance pods, modify the Gripen's data link equipment to match NATO standards, and send aircraft overseas to participate in major multinational exercises, including Red Flag events in the USA, Nyström says: "We have done the right things over the last decade. The interoperability challenge for Sweden has been a success."

Now with a total fleet strength of more than 300 aircraft, including tactical transports, helicopters and jet trainers, the Swedish air force has only four operational Gripen squadrons - two each at its Lulea and Ronneby air bases. A further two training units are also equipped with the type, at its Satenas site.

"Even a small air force is able to contribute," says Bydén, referring to the Libyan mission. "But there are limitations."

In line with a reduction in aircraft numbers, the air force is also smaller in personnel strength than at any point in the past several decades.

An all-professional level of 3,950 employees is targeted for 1 January 2013, with Stockholm already having stopped using conscripts in its armed forces. The move has created a challenge, however, with about 800 staff vacancies existing. "I need to add more people to my force," Bydén told the RUSI Air Power conference in London on 1 November.

GRIPEN VARIANT

Sweden's current defence plans call for 100 Gripens to be maintained, initially all in the most recent C/D configuration. This marks a significant reduction from today's inventory, which Flightglobal's MiliCAS database reveals comprises 180 aircraft through the A to D production standards.

However, with the Gripen expected to remain in frontline use until 2040, Stockholm has, within the past year, made a fresh commitment to further boost the single-engined type's capabilities, giving its backing to a more capable E-model development, under a bilateral agreement with Switzerland.

Nyström says the E's advanced capabilities, which include longer range or more time on station, supercruise performance, increased weapons-carrying potential, and enhanced radar and electronic warfare systems, match requirements established against potential threat scenarios for the 2025 timeframe. These include the more common use of stealthy fighters and the presence of longer-range enemy air defence systems.

"We really think that we need this [Gripen] configuration to build up the [defensive] umbrella over Sweden," he told the IQPC International Fighter conference in London in early November.

Sweden expects to buy between 40 and 60 of the future variant, which is currently involved in flight testing using an adapted two-seat trainer, while Switzerland would take 22. Deliveries to the nations would start in 2018, with the latter aiming to have all of its multirole aircraft in use by 2021. A potential bridging deal using 11 C/D-model Gripens could allow its air force to retire its remaining Northrop F-5 fighters around 2015.

Original plans to also develop a two-seat F-model version have been shelved on cost grounds and because the Swedish air force's structure does not currently include the weapon system operators needed to occupy the fighter's rear seat.

The service wants its Gripen Es to achieve initial operating capability in 2023, while some of its existing C/Ds could undergo mid-life upgrade in 2020-2025, to maintain its desired total fleet size.

"We are small, so we need to be smart and efficient, and at the forefront of technology," Bydén says.

Nearer-term, its current aircraft - which already use the Diehl BGT Defence IRIS-T short-range air-to-air missile and Saab Bofors Dynamics RBS-15 anti-ship missile - will gain the ability to use MBDA's Meteor beyond visual-range air-to-air missile, and the Small Diameter Bomb, both from 2015. "We are still planning to contract all these capabilities," Nyström says.

The proposed collaboration with Switzerland follows Sweden's experience with 11 other NATO and Partnership for Peace nations in operating a pooled fleet of three Boeing C-17 transports - a type which it could not hope to acquire solely using its own funds.

Stockholm is the second-largest contracted user of the Strategic Airlift Capability aircraft, the first of which entered service at Pápa air base in Hungary in July 2009. The multinational Heavy Airlift Wing has so far logged more than 8,000 flight hours, and was declared as having reached full operational capability status on 14 November.

swedish air force kc-130h swedish air force

 Swedish air force  

Eight C/KC-130Hs will need replacing

Bydén says that once the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan has transitioned to a non-combat position and much of the personnel and equipment deployed there have been returned home, Sweden could call on the C-17 to meet more of its tactical airlift needs.

Sweden flies seven Lockheed Martin C-130H transports and one KC-130H tanker, which MiliCAS records as having entered use between 1965 and 1981. Beyond its pending decision on funding the Gripen E, the nation must also tackle the issue of replacing its aged Hercules in the next few years, as well as a jet trainer fleet of Saab 105s. With money tight, greater co-operation with C-130J users Denmark and Norway and with other nations on fast-jet pilot training activities could be pursued.

Co-operation with the USA, meanwhile, has proved vital in the rapid acquisition of a new fleet of Sikorsky UH-60M Black Hawk utility helicopters, several of which will begin supporting ISAF activities in Afghanistan from early next year.

Ten of the Swedish Defence Forces Helicopter Wing's eventual 15 UH-60s have been delivered to Malmen air base, near Linköping, since December 2011, with two more to arrive before year-end and the remainder to follow in early 2013. The type will replace Eurocopter AS332 Cougars deployed since April 2011 in performing medical evacuation, troop transport and utility duties.

"It wasn't possible to sustain the assets that we had," says Bydén, who adds that the UH-60M acquisition was "a political decision". This was made in part because Sweden's ongoing introduction of the NH Industries NH90 has encountered major problems, with Flightglobal's Ascend Online Fleets database recording only six of its eventual 18 aircraft as having been fielded so far, and only to support training.

swedish air force uh-60ms linus kilander/swedish air force

 Linus Kilander/Swedish air force

Three of Stockholm's new UH-60Ms will be deployed to  Mazar-e-Sharif

Referring to the NH90 - which Sweden designates as the Hkp 14, Bydén says: "It will be a great asset, but it will take a few more years." Despite having ordered its aircraft in 2001, the nation has previously said it could take until 2020 to reach full operational status as a tactical transport and ship-based type.

Sweden is acquiring its UH-60M/Hkp 16s under an accelerated Foreign Military Sales deal signed with the USA in mid-2011. The deal is worth up to SKr4.7 billion ($695 million), including training services, through-life operating costs and maintenance support from Sikorsky Aerospace Services and Saab.

"We bought the complete system. We needed an already operational platform, but also an operational concept," says Mikael Wikh, the helicopter wing's Wing Commander Flying for the Hkp 16.

Experienced Swedish multi-engined helicopter pilots have undergone training at the US Army's Ft Rucker site in Alabama, comprising a seven-week air qualification phase on the legacy UH-60A and a further seven weeks to transition to the M-version Black Hawk.

Longer-term, personnel will train straight on to the new model, with an eventual cadre of 40-45 pilots available. Meanwhile, technicians have received instruction at Ft Eustis, Virginia, spending up to six months on the army's helicopter repair course.

OPERATIONAL EVALUATION

All tactical flight training takes place in Sweden. The first flight with the type was performed on 16 January, and more than 1,000 flight hours have now been completed.

"We now focus 100% on our mission in Afghanistan," says Wikh, who adds that the theatre requires pilots to fly by day or night, at low level, in formation, and to land in dusty conditions. An operational evaluation process is being conducted for all such elements. "We are very satisfied with the aircraft," adds Wikh.

While it has a smaller cabin than the Cougar, the Black Hawk has a full glass cockpit and offers "a more robust and better performance", he says. "This aircraft is built for military missions."

Helicopter wing personnel visited their future operating base at Mazar-e-Sharif air base in Afghanistan recently to prepare for a deployment which will see about three aircraft and several crews deploy to arrive in the country in early March. "Our mission was to make sure we can fulfil our requirement and are on the right track, and we are," says Wikh. "It will be a very tight handover process," he adds, with the UH-60Ms to deliver the mission from 1 April.

Bydén says he expects the new aircraft to remain in Afghanistan for about 24 months, while wing officials are planning to be able to sustain a detachment for at least three years. Stockholm recently outlined its intention to retain a presence in the country until mid-2014, including medical evacuation helicopters, and potentially longer if requested by the authorities in Kabul and required by NATO.

Post-Afghanistan, Sweden has multiple applications for the UH-60M. "We will always have a lot to do," Wikh says.