Low operating costs should secure Gripen's future
Provided nationally endorsed plans in Sweden and Switzerland survive political or economic upsets, the JAS 39E/F, the product of the Demo and Next Generation programs, will be delivered to customers in 2018. This will mean that and its supplier team will have created what is in most respects an entirely new aircraft, compared to the original JAS 39A/B, since development of the in-service C/D started in June 1997.
This has been done so far under fixed-price contracts for development, new production and retrofits, according to a presentation by FMV, the Swedish defense procurement organization. After the delivery of the last Gripen C/D, Saab returned an unspecified sum of money to the Swedish government because costs were lower than predicted.
More details of the JAS 39E/F emerged at an aerospace conference hosted by the Swedish air force and Saab earlier this month at Malmen air base, and attended by current and prospective Gripen operators.
The schedule is set by two interlocking commitments. The Swedish government has decided to replace the C/D with the E/F and has committed to developing the aircraft in time to support Switzerland's requirements. The Swiss government has selected the E/F as the sole affordable replacement for the F-5E/F, and subject to a referendum and negotiations will sign a contract in 2014, triggering a full-scale go-ahead by Sweden.
Some development work will continue to lay the foundation for the four-year program. As long as the political process stays on track, the first of two built-from-the-ground-up E/F development aircraft, identified as 39-8, will fly in late 2013. The Gripen Demo has been equipped with a prototype of the Selex Raven ES-05 active, electronically scanned array radar and will be used to test the E/F's revised avionics system and weapons.
The E/F airframe will be largely new, although it should be possible to use some major components from existing C/D airframes, including the wings. Mid and aft fuselage sections will be new, to accommodate theF414 engine (and its larger airflow) and the new landing gear. The blended wing-body sections will be larger, placing the wing attachment points an estimated 30 in. farther apart. The goal is to maintain the same wing loading for the E/F's 2.5-ton increase in gross weight. The body will be slightly longer, maintaining or improving fineness ratio. Sources suggest the design will incorporate -style diverterless supersonic inlets.
The E/F is expected to supercruise with weapons carried. Still under discussion is whether to use the Enhanced Performance Engine (EPE) version of the F414, which could be configured to deliver more thrust, better fuel efficiency or a combination of the two.
A mock-up of the Selex Galileo sensor suite for the E/F was on display at Malmen, confirming important features of the design. The Raven ES-05 features a “repositioner”: the AESA is sharply canted and mounted on a rotating bearing, giving it a +-100-deg. field of regard, almost twice that of a fixed AESA. It has a single bearing, unlike the more complex two-bearing design planned for the, reducing weight and cost.
The AESA incorporates an identification friend-or-foe (IFF) function that works in conjunction with the SIT 426 IFF. The latter features large active-array antennas on the fuselage sides, behind the radome, providing unprecedented IFF coverage in azimuth and range. Finally, the Skyward-G infrared search-and-track system is air-cooled—reducing weight.
The sensor suite design, focused on low weight, supports part of the E/F strategy, which is to provide a common upgrade path for new E/F customers and current C/D operators by making the new sensors, and the revised avionics system, retrofittable to the C/D.
This in turn supports the economic strategy behind Gripen. While the fighter's flyaway costs are not quoted, a senior Swedish officer notes that “it is not a cheap aircraft” to acquire. On the other hand, new Swedish Defense Minister Karin Enstrom said in an interview at Malmen that “the alternatives are not viable, either.” This reflects the fact that the operating costs of the Gripen are claimed to be far lower than those of any competitor.
According to Swiss air force Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Marcus Gygax, the national evaluation showed that theand Typhoon would have costs per flight-hour within a few per cent of one another—but roughly twice that of the JAS 39E/F. (Gygax also confirms that leaked reports out of Swiss weapons acquisition agency Armasuisse are based on old data and do not reflect the Gripen configuration chosen by Switzerland.)
Norway, in its 2008 evaluation of Gripen against the F-35, penalized the Swedish fighter with life-cycle cost estimates based on high upgrade development costs, spread over a small number of aircraft. However, Swedish leaders point to the C/D—which includes a new cockpit, data link and electronic warfare system, developed at far lower cost than most comparable upgrades. The E/F's new central avionics system is intended to feature an unprecedented degree of partitioning between mission systems and flight-critical functions, reducing development and upgrade times and costs. According to Saab, flight-critical systems take as much time and money in verification and testing as they do in initial design, but the E/F mission systems should be verified in 10-15% of that time. Gygax points out that with a common C/D upgrade path, the E/F operators will be part of the same community as current operators of the type.