Saab is counting down to performing the first flight of its Gripen E combat aircraft before the end of June, as it also strives to finalise a slew of potential new sales of the earlier C/D version in Europe and Africa.
Aircraft 39-8 – the first of three single-seat prototypes which will support the E/NG programme – is currently in the flight-test hangar at the Swedish manufacturer's Linköping site.
"It's preparing for first flight right now," head of flight test Hans Einerth said on 9 May. Ground vibration testing with accelerometers attached to the airframe to simulate the effects of flight had just concluded, and updated software was poised to be loaded on to the jet ahead of its milestone sortie.
Einerth says low- and high-speed taxi tests have already been performed to just over 100kt (185km/h), and that so far the team has been impressed by the new aircraft's software. "We can see it is really stable and robust," he says, noting that only one in-built test needed repeating during taxi trials. "With the [Gripen] C/D there was a lot of work there," he notes.
Saab opted laste last year to push back its first flight target by six months, to enable the E model jet's flight control software to undergo assessment to civilian standards. The current indications are that this approach – which also splits flight-critical elements from other systems to enable rapid updates – will pay dividends, potentially reducing the total amount of flight testing to be required.
Johan Segertoft, project manager for the Gripen E's avionics backbone, describes the new technique as a "game-changer". "Our [software] platform is completely reconfigurable and adaptable, and qualified to the highest level," he says. "If you add another box you only have to qualify the box. So, once it's qualified you can focus on adding value."
Describing Saab's approach as having been "naively brave", Segertoft notes: "It took us a while – but now we are there. During development we swapped in a new control computer in a fraction of the time we would have used in the past, and it worked exactly as before, but with a lot more computing power available."
The company is so confident about its new software architecture that it is already looking to other sectors, such as the automotive industry, for additional applications.
Saab has not revealed how many hours of testing its trio of prototypes will accumulate, but their work will build on its experience with flying the Gripen Demo platform since May 2008. The demonstrator has tested key new elements, including the type's Leonardo-developed Raven ES-05 active electronically scanned array radar and infrared search and track sensor.
Einerth says aircraft 39-8 will be dedicated to general vehicle and structural testing, along with some limited tactical functions.
Saab officials used a pre-Paris air show media tour to outline its progress on the Gripen E, and reveal a configuration which would enable the type to carry seven MBDA Meteor beyond-visual-range air-to-air missiles. Mounted on under-wing and fuselage pylons, this would give the type a formidable counter-air weapons load, which could alternatively be provided by using a mix of the European weapon and Raytheon AIM-120 AMRAAMs and Diehl Defence's short-range IRIS-T.
The Swedish air force began introducing the Meteor system to its six operational Gripen C/D squadrons last year, as part of the current fleet's MS20-standard update, making it the first service to field the European design.
“It is a longer-range weapon [than AMRAAM], with some really good performance in it,” says Maj Johan Jeppsson, director of operations at the Swedish air force’s Gripen operational test and evaluation unit at Malmen air base. This is continuing to work with operational squadrons to define the procedures for operating with the ramjet-powered weapon.
“We have some new tactics,” he says. “And a pretty good edge in air-to-air combat.”
The service plans to deploy Gripen C/Ds to a Red Flag-series exercise in the USA during 2019 or 2020, to test its new-standard jets under the toughest training conditions possible.
Looking at its newest development, Niclas Kolmodin, head of product management Gripen, says the E programme is running on track, with simulation and rig-based testing also supporting the pre-flight activity. Further test examples and the first series aircraft are also now in the production process for Sweden and launch export customer Brazil. The latter's first prototype is in the subassembly phase, and will join the final assembly line later this year.
Under current contracts, 60 E-model fighters will be delivered to the Swedish air force from 2019, while Brazil's first of at least 36 examples will follow later the same year. The international customer's fleet will be split between 28 single-seat fighters and eight combat-capable two-seaters, being developed with Embraer in a unique F-model configuration.
Mikael Franzén, head of Saab Aeronautics' Gripen Brazil business unit, says flight testing will commence at Embraer's Gavião Peixoto site during 2020, with activity already ramping up in a recently opened Gripen Design and Development Network facility. This will eventually have 250 employees, and be "the hub in Brazil for Gripen development".
In all, between 500 and 900 test sorties are expected to be flown in Brazil, with customer-unique weapons integration also to be performed there.
Embraer will perform final assembly at its São Bernardo do Campo facility, also manufacturing the fighter's front fuselage and nose, wings, tailcone and airbrake. Centre fuselage production will be performed by Saab.
"We will transfer the skills there," Franzén says. About 65% of the technology transfer package linked to the Gripen E purchase will be made to Embraer, with other beneficiaries to include AEL Sistemas, Akaer, Atmos and Inbra Aero. In all, offsets linked to the deal are valued around $9 billion.
There are currently about 100 Brazilian engineers in Sweden, with each to spend about two years in Linköping. So far 60-70 have completed their training alongside Saab counterparts.
"We will have some aircraft built in Sweden, some built here and finished in Brazil and around 20 will be built in Brazil entirely," Franzén says. Saab's hope is that the customer will eventually increase its acquisition of the type to more than 200 units, and also promote further sales in Latin America.
Richard Smith, head of sales and marketing for the Gripen, points to an emerging trend of rising defence budgets over the past two years as representing a major opportunity for Saab. Potential customers are submitting highly detailed requests for information, and are no longer content with merely buying jets. "Operators want everything, and to maintain an edge now and in the future," he notes.
Saab has an extensive list of sales targets for either the current-standard Gripen C/D or the more advanced E model. It identifies these as including Belgium, Botswana, Bulgaria, Canada, Colombia, Croatia, Finland, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Slovakia and Switzerland.
Of these, Botswana, Bulgaria and Slovakia appear to hold the greatest potential for signed deals. The African nation, which is seeking to replace its aged Northrop F-5s, is in discussion with Sweden over a possible purchase of an undisclosed number of C/Ds. Bulgaria's outgoing government early this month picked the same type ahead of surplus Eurofighter Typhoons and Lockheed Martin F-16s, and Slovakia has been in talks over a purchase since 2015.
While Saab is currently not achieving its stated target of closing a new Gripen sale each year, Smith says the company is happy to take its time. "Patience is absolutely key," he notes, when a customer is poised to commit to a new system for perhaps 30 to 40 years. "We offer new aircraft and very high-value packages in logistics and support," he adds.
Although the new E model is nearing flight, he notes: "The C/D market is growing. We don’t see any end for the production line." The company delivered its last new-build example about two years ago, but says it could deliver a new-build jet within 18 months, if requested by a customer.
While Saab has stopped short of manufacturing white-tail Gripens without a confirmed customer, Smith notes that it "has started some essential work, to shorten the delivery timeframe and give a competitive edge".
The Swedish air force has funding to operate the Gripen C/D until 2026, with further enhancements in the pipeline for its MS20 software. Current users the Czech Republic and Hungary have already committed to modify their jets to the new operating standard, with additional users South Africa and Thailand yet to do the same. There is also a prospect that Saab's home air force will retain some of its current aircraft to remain closer to its current fleet size of 96 aircraft than its 60-strong order for the E will allow.
The Gripen E will enter Swedish service with a basic air-to-air capability and with weapons compatible with MS20, with an updated MS21 standard due to achieve readiness as the type becomes operationally ready. A more advanced MS22 level, enabling multi-role operations, is scheduled to be in squadron use by the end of 2023.
The type should achieve initial operational capability status with a first squadron at this point, with full capability expected to follow three years later with all six Swedish squadrons.
Despite the rapid approach of its flight-test campaign, the Gripen E still has significant elements which have yet to be defined for the Swedish customer, including its cockpit configuration. Brazil has picked a large-screen display being developed by Elbit Systems' subsidiary AEL Sistemas, along with head-up and helmet-mounted displays from the same supplier. Sweden could, however, opt for a more traditional cockpit layout, with three multi-function displays.
A prototype of the large-screen display is currently in Linköping, where it will undergo human-machine interface testing with Brazilian and Swedish pilots. Jeppsson notes that a decision on the cockpit configuration sits with Saab and Sweden's FMV defence materiel administration, but that the air force had been expecting a choice two years ago.
Meanwhile, the Swedish air force indicates that some parts for its new Gripen Es will be harvested from stored A/B-model examples. This will be confined to subsystems such as valves and pumps, while ejection seats are also likely to be reused in a bid to reduce programme costs. With political backing required to boost its future fleet of the type to 70 or 80 units, getting the type airborne and keeping to schedule are of the highest importance.
Brazil's confirmation as the first export buyer for the Gripen E was a massive coup for Saab, with the 36-aircraft F-X2 contract previously thought to have been heading the way of Dassault's Rafale, following a pre-emptive and ultimately disastrous political decision during the tenure of president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.
Pointing to the "very hard competition" which led to the Gripen's selection, Brig Márcio Bruno Bonotto, president of the co-ordination committee for the combat aircraft programme at Brazil's COPAC procurement agency, says: "We support the decision that the Gripen was the best choice. We have not changed a word since the evaluation."
Speaking to reporters while visiting Linköping in early May to attend a customer review, he said: "We are very happy with this [programme] until now. We are on schedule."
Brazil's operational ambitions for the Gripen E/F are clear from its service entry plan. The nation's air force should receive its first aircraft in 2021 with an initial air-to-air capability, and Bonotto says full operational clearance is planned about one year later. "Since the beginning we will have an operational aircraft – not an independence day fighter for flybys," he says.
"We are excited about this programme – for 20 years we have been waiting to have new aircraft. Although there is a financial crisis in Brazil, this is the number one priority."
Referring to potential follow-on orders, Bonotto says: "We have a number in mind – but it's easy to make a mistake on numbers. We would like to see the aircraft flying and see the capabilities, and then we will decide from there."
The Brazilian procurement official says the industrial link-up with Sweden and Saab is a success, in part because "it's easy to keep in touch with a country that has an interest in us". This differs from the relationship with another country from which it has bought satellites and submarines, but which in return ordered Lockheed Martin's C-130J tactical transport/tanker without considering Embraer's KC-390.
"What is partnership?", he says of the other nation in question: France. "Invite us for a competition, and we are sure we will provide you with a surprise," he says, with Brazil keen to promote its KC-390 to Sweden.
Saab and Embraer have already started early-stage work on future fighter concepts, but Bonotto notes: "This is almost a dream – it would be a product for after the Gripen is retired."