The export market for the Saab Gripen fighter is starting to take off. “It’s all happening at a tremendous pace” says Bob Kemp, senior vice president for international sales & marketing at Gripen International, the company that handles sales of the Swedish aircraft.
In the days leading up to the show, Gripen International submitted a proposal to Switzerland, claiming the Gripen offered the most cost-effective and proportionate replacement for the Swiss Air Force’s ageing Northrop Grumman F-5E/F fighters. Rival aircraft such as the Dassault Rafale and the Eurofighter Typhoon would both be “too expensive to allow the procurement of the required 33 aircraft while staying within budget”, Kemp says.
Switzerland is one of a number of nations who need to replace their current US-supplied fighters, alongside Greece, Malaysia and Thailand (which recently ordered the Gripen) as well as some of the potential JSF customer nations. This is a new and difficult category for Gripen International, whose early sales successes were to nations in two other categories identified by Kemp.
Launch customer South Africa helped to position Gripen as what Kemp described as the “fighter-of-choice” for non-aligned nations, replacing French and Russian fighters. Argentina, Brazil and Ecuador are viewed as further prospects in this sector. The Gripen’s next customers – the Czech Republic and Hungary - represented a different class of operator: new NATO member states that wanted to replace Soviet-era fighters with Western aircraft that would be fully compatible with their new NATO responsibilities and commitments.
Gripen International still hopes to supply some 400 examples of the existing production JAS 39C and two-seat JAS 39D models, but the company is looking ahead, and in the slightly longer term Kemp hopes to establish a new variant, the so-called Gripen NG, as the “world’s export market-leading single-engined muti-role fighter.”
Even before the Gripen entered service, Saab began looking ahead at how the aircraft could be further developed and improved, especially by increasing the aircraft’s range, and by adding new avionics and systems.
After showing advanced concepts with conformal tanks, thrust vectoring and towed radar decoys, Gripen International revealed a more modestly modified configuration at Paris last year. This revised configuration featured a new forward-retracting main landing gear. This freed up internal volume for extra fuel, and the distinctive bulged wing-root fairings provided further internal volume.
Together, the changes provide an extra 38% of internal fuel, taking the total to 3,130kg, while the relocated and beefed-up undercarriage also allows a 2-tonne increase in maximum take off weight, to 16t. Since the aircraft can now carry heavier warloads (up to 6,000kg), the new variant can carry new side by side under-fuselage pylons (augmenting the single centre-line pylon) and has underwing hardpoints capable of carrying twin pylons. The new Gripen NG aircraft will also be able to carry extra-large drop tanks.
In addition to increased fuel and payload, the new variant was to have enhanced engine performance, and was to provide enhanced network-centric capability and mission survivability and better situational awareness for the pilot.
It was announced that this new configuration would be flown on a Gripen Demonstrator or Gripen Demo aircraft, converted from a two-seat JAS 39B. This aircraft was rolled out on at Linköping on April 23, 2008, and made its maiden flight on May 27. The aircraft is intended as a technology demonstrator for future Gripen variants and as a platform for technology insertion for the whole Gripen family – including existing in-service aircraft.
The Gripen Demonstrator programme also includes a new Gripen avionics rig – and is supported by investment from Saab and its international industrial partners including General Electric, Volvo Aero, Thales, Rockwell-Collins, Honeywell, APPH, Martin-Baker, Terma and Meggit and by the Norwegian and Swedish governments.
The aircraft is effectively both a testbed for an upgrade configuration for the Swedish air force (which already refers to it as the JAS 39E and JAS 39F), and as the prototype for planned ‘Future Gripens’ for export customers, including variants for Norway, Denmark, and India.
The Demo aircraft is powered by one of the two F414G engines recently delivered to Saab. For the second phase of its test programme, which will begin next year after a winter lay-up, it will be fitted with a new Saab/Thales active electronically-scanned array (AESA) radar; a missile warning system; and enhanced avionics and displays.
As no ‘Enhanced Gripen’ (Gripen NG) will enter service until around 2015, many of today's advanced technologies will have evolved considerably by the time a production aircraft is flying. The Gripen Demo aircraft will be used to sketch out the Future Gripen development road map, but the specific systems being fitted today may be superseded in the production version. This will allow the Gripen NG to “jump ten years ahead of the JSF in terms of technology” says Kemp, since the US aircraft’s systems are already tightly defined.
The AESA radar being trialled on the Demo offers an excellent example of this approach. The demonstrator radar is a prototype/proof of concept device which combines a modified back end from the Gripen’s standard PS-05/A radar with a Thales array, built using modules developed as part of the AESA programme for the Dassault Rafale. It will provide useful experience of AESA integration, and will demonstrate the operational capabilities of an AESA radar, but it will not be the final radar used by a production Gripen NG.
Kemp insists that the new Gripen NG will be the “main challenger to JSF”, dismissing the Eurofighter Typhoon on cost grounds. He says the Dassault Rafale will “never get started on the export market” because of what he called “launch customer nervousness – who wants to be the first and perhaps only customer?”
Kemp says many potential F-35 customers were uncomfortable with the “You’re either with us or against us” approach to fighter sales. He claimed that growing dissatisfaction with technology transfer, workshare and offsets, coupled with F-35 cost escalation and slipping timescales have led “more and more JSF customers coming to talk to us about a replacement for JSF”.
Kemp listed a number of air forces as Gripen NG prospects, including Denmark (with a requirement for 48 aircraft), Norway (48), India (126-220+) and the Netherlands (85), as well as Canada (70) and Switzerland (22-33).
Source: Flight International