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Debate started: keep older Swedish Gripen jets flying

A debate has started in Sweden to keep part of the current Gripen C/D fighter fleet of the Swedish Air Force flying, even after the purchase of the new and more capable E/F-model. Target: to safeguard that Sweden is able to protect its borders and economic zone.

The newest contribution to the debate comes from expert Robert Dalsjö of the Royal Swedish Academy for War Sciences. “The Gripen C/D has an average age of seven years and only a handful of planes have flown more than 1,000 hours. Combat aircraft are designed for 8,000 flight hours and in the Western world the are used for up to 30 and 40 years,” Dalsjö writes in the Swedish national daily Svenska Dagbladet.

Roll-out of the new, more capable Gripen E in May 2016 (Image © Saab)
Roll-out of the new, more capable Gripen E in May 2016 (Image © Saab)

Axe the Gripen

Having invested huge in the Gripen C/D Dalsjö argues that it is a wrong burning of money to axe the aircraft already. Sweden officially has 97 Gripen C/Ds on its three main airbases of Ronneby (southeast), Såtenäs (centrewest) and Luleå-Kallax (north) and on maintenance locations, with currently about 87 of them rotating operationally between the units. The Swedish government decided to buy 60 brand-new, larger and more capable Gripen E/F in the near future – with Brazil getting another 36 in cooperation with Brazilian Embraer.

Survive chances

Many in Sweden with insight in the defence world believe the expanded range, heavier payload and newer features of the Gripen will improve the readiness and survive chances of the Swedish Armed Forces, but the number of 60 aircraft is overall considered to low for the vast Scandinavian country. The Swedish Air Force will then have to protect, defend and – if necessary – attack with only max. 15 operational aircraft at its three air bases. The remainder 15 aircraft will be likely be held in reserve.

The low number is seriously going to limit the Swedish reaction in international crises, for example when Russia will increase it already quite visible presence in the Baltic Sea area. During the last century SAAB built 329 Viggen combat aircraft for the Swedish Air Force. Eighty-five of them were fully multirole and were considered the absolute minimum to keep Sweden safe.

Gripen taxiing to the short runway at Vidsel (Image © Louise Levin / Försvarsmakten)
Gripen taxiing to the short runway at Vidsel (Image © Louise Levin / Försvarsmakten)

“Protected” by neighbours

Safety is no longer a post-Cold War luxury. The Swedes need to worry, even when it comes down to being “protected” by its neighbours. The 55 F/A-18s of the neighbouring Finnish Air Force are good, but even when dispersed during a war situation they will likely not be a match to Russian air power.

The same goes for the new Royal Norwegian Air Force F-35A, with only a handful planned to serve as Norway’s own QRA on Eveness Airbase in the north and the main force much further south on Ørland Airbase near Trondheim. Unlike Norway, Sweden is no real NATO member and the future president of the USA might not even consider to come to Sweden’s aid to live up to the military coop and support contracts Stockholm and Washington DC have signed. However, politically Sweden has shown combat aircraft support to especially NATO-neighbour Norway several times the last couple of years during high-profile war games.

A SAAB Gripen armed with the RBS15 long range Air-launched Anti Ship Missile. (Image © SAAB Group)
A SAAB Gripen armed with the RBS15 long range Air-launched Anti Ship Missile. (Image © SAAB Group)

Supporting SAAB

Keeping a mixed fleet of 60 Gripen E/F aircraft and – let’s say – 30 to 60 Gripen C/D seems like a reasonable, future solution for the Swedish Air Force, from both a financial and military-strategical point of view. It will even support Sweden’s indigenous aviation industry of Saab – a reason why Sweden fully chooses the 60 new aircraft – more, with maintenance contracts as well as new-build options for the defence firm based in Linköping.

No follow-on order

Of course at SAAB HQ they are hoping there will be a follow-on order from the Flygvapnet for another 10 to 30 Gripen jets, but that may never come. Cash-aware as Sweden needs to be these days, the Defence is buying new submarines (from SAAB), is in an urgent need for an effective long-range ground-based air-defence system to counter Russian offensive air and the remaining six of originally eight ancient Lockheed C-130 Hercules aircraft are in need of replacement. The new aircraft, which may be the Brazilian Embraer KC-390 will likely have to feature in-flight refuelling as well – currently being provided by the C-130 fleet.

The debate to keep the JAS 39C/D flying for many years to come has just started. Whatever the outcome, many Swedes are increasingly worried by their country’s safety. And that is normally fuel for decision makers to weigh more options.

© 2016 Airheadsfly.com senior contributor Marcel Burger
Featured image: Gripen taxiing to the short runway at Vidsel (Image © Louise Levin / Försvarsmakten)

Israeli Lavi-force at full strength, T-50 criticized

The Israeli Air Force now has its full complement of 30 Leonardo Finmeccanica M-346 Lavi advanced jet trainers operational. The final one has been commissioned this week.

With the new jets, the skies of Israel will be free of the Skyhawk – the legendary A-4 that was the Lavi’s predecessor after having been commissioned in the 1960s.

The commissioning of the full 30 jets – known in Italy as the Master – went with some bad mouthing on the biggest competitor: the Korean Aerospace Industries T-50 Golden Eagle. “At the end of the day, the Italian plane was better than the Korean one. We choose wisely for the Lavi,” Israel’s head of procurement of the Ministry of Defence – Shmuel Tzuker, said to The Times of Israel.

USA’s T-X program

An interesting remark, since a derivative of the T-50 is also in the running to replace the US Air Force’s Northrop T-38 Talon advanced jet fighters. This Lockheed Martin/KIA T-50A is also facing the heat of the M-346, enroled in the USA’s T-X program as the Raytheon/Leonardo Finmeccanica T-100. According to Israel the M-346 is better in quality of training, safety, maintenance, specs and costs of operation.

So far, 68 M-346 Lead-In Fighter Trainer versions have been ordered by the air forces of Italy (18), Singapore (12), Israel (30) and Poland (8). But there are new markets at the horizon.

Combat M-346

A noticeable development which may also interest countries like Israel and Poland is the recently presented armed version of the Italian advanced trainer. At the 2016 Farnborough International Airshow Leonardo Finmeccanica showed of its M-346FT (Fighter Trainer) with light multi-role capabilities including laser guided bombs and air-to-air missiles. Airheadsfly.com already went inside deep at Lecce Airbase, aka the Master’s nest.

© 2016 Airheadsfly.com special contributor Marcel Burger
Featured image: The Israeli M-346 Lavi (“Lion”) (Image © Leonardo Finmeccanica)

The armed M-346FT development (Image © Leonardo Finmeccanica)
The armed M-346FT development (Image © Leonardo Finmeccanica)

France forces Mirage 2000Ds to fight on and go low

Despite having about 100 Dassault Rafale B/Cs in the Air Force inventory, France sees itself forced to keep its older Mirage 2000D operational to keep the ground attack capabilities of the Armée de l’Air at proper levels. It even wants the Deltas to drop below altitudes they were not meant to do when designed – learning from recent missions in the skies of Southwest Asia.

Dassault Aviation received the order – by French defence procurement agency DGA – to renovate 55 Mirage 2000Ds. The modification include weapon system updates, the gun pod and Mica missiles of the aircraft version of the Mirage 2000 that is especially adapted for ground attack.

The Mirage 2000D entered service in 1993 and is the “less terrifying” sister of the Mirage 2000N designed for nuclear strike. In fact, the aircraft are basically the same with the Delta used for long-range strikes with conventional Apache, Scalp and Mica missiles. The first flight of the 2000D was in 1991, roughly 5 years after the 2000N. Lacking an on-board gun, has proven to be a miss during recent combat operations in Afghanistan, Libya (Operations Harmattan / Unified Protector) and Central Africa / Mali (Serval, now Barkhane) and combating the so-called Islamic State forces in Iraq and Syria (ISIS / Daesh(.

Mirage 2000D operations

During the operations of the last few years the Mirage 2000Ds often flew with just a pair of 500 lbs GBU-12 laser-guided or GBU-49 gps-/laser-guided bombs and two external fuel tanks. Adding the gun pod means the French Air Force wants to add a more effective close-air support to the Mirage 2000D – something that the aircraft was not designed to do but may work well in low-threat environments. The new modifications are believed to have been mostly “inspired” by the recent deployments against ISIS / Daesh.

The newest French multi-role fighters Dassault Rafale B (two-seat) and C (single-seat) initially were introduced with air-to-air capabilities (F1) only. The latest Dassault Rafale B/C have been delivered in F3 standard (fully multi-role, including nuclear strike) but reportedly not all Rafale F1s have been fully upgraded yet to F3.

Mirage 2000D bases

French Air Force Mirage 2000Ds fly from BA133 Nancy/Ochey (France), BA188 Djibouti/Ambouli (East Africa) plus a pair normally deployed to Niamey/Diori Hamani in Niger in support of Operation Barkhane.

© 2016 Airheadsfly.com senior contributor Marcel Burger
Featured image (top): A Mirage 2000 taking off (Image © Elmer van Hest)

‘Swedish Air Force most capable combat force northern Europe’

Since 11 July the Swedish Air Force has reaffirmed its dominant position as the most capable combat force of Northern Europe. Reaching Initial Operational Capability with the indigenous SAAB JAS 39C/D Gripen MS20 armed with Meteor outclasses – according to experts and Airheadsfly.com – currently all other nations in the greater Baltic Sea area – apart from Russia.

At the moment the Gripen is the only combat aircraft in the world flying the new MBDA Meteor Beyond Visual Range Air-to-Air Missile (BVRAAM). Moreover the MS20 firmware update of the JAS 39´s enhances the technological status of the Gripen even further.

Armed with 88 operational Gripen C/Ds – with many being fully updated and Meteor-ready relatively soon – the Flygvapnet keeps the F-16 equipped air arms of Norway, Denmark, the Netherlands and Poland; the F/A-18 equipped Finnish Air Force; and the Eurofighter EF2000 / Tornado equipped Luftwaffe and Royal Air Force in its rear-view mirror.

A Czech Gripen during Lion Effort 2015 (Image © Martin Král)
A Czech Gripen during Lion Effort 2015 (Image © Martin Král)

Czech Air Force

NATO allies flying the Gripen jet take the new capabilities too, with the Czech Air Force jumping to get its 14 Gripen jets to MS20 standard as well. Apart from better missions systems the MS20 gives Gripen operators more options when it comes to air-to-air, air-to-surface and ISTAR (information, surveillance, target acquisition, and reconnaissance).

Meteor BVRAAM

The MBDA Meteor is the most significant new weapon system in the MS20 configuration. The ramjet-powered BVRAAM is probably the most advanced air-to-air weapon currently deployed it the West. It has a range of 63 miles (100 km), with MBDA boasting a “no escape zone” of about 40 miles (60 km) – three times more than any similar missile of today.

A SAAB Gripen armed with the RBS15 long range Air-launched Anti Ship Missile. (Image © SAAB Group)
A SAAB Gripen armed with the RBS15 long range Air-launched Anti Ship Missile. (Image © SAAB Group)

Speaking at the Farnborough International Airshow 2016 on Monday Major General Mats Helgesson, Chief-of-Staff of the Swedish Air Force, could not hide his pride.

“After extensive testing by Swedish Defence Materiel Organisation and the Gripen Operational Test and Evaluation unit, all of the new MS20 functions including the Meteor missile are now fully integrated with Gripen. The Swedish Air Force is now in its Initial Operational Capability phase with the Meteor. The Meteor missile is currently the most lethal radar-guided missile in operational service, and the Swedish Air Force is the only operational user so far.”

Rafales

Probably the Dassault Rafales of the French Air Force will be next flying the Meteor operational. After that the Eurofighter Typhoons of the Royal Air Force and the air arms of Germany, Saudi Arabia, Spain and Italy will follow. The RAF and Aeronautica Militare Italiana plan to field the Meteor as well on their future Lockheed Martin F-35s; while Rafales of the Egyptian and Qatar Emiri Air Force will likely use it as well.

Air-to-ground Gripen

Back to Sweden, where the MS20 update of the Gripen also enables the jets to fly newer air-to-ground weapons, like the Boeing GBU-39 Small Diameter Bomb for a precision strike. Equipped with four launchers of four SDBs each, a single Gripen carry 16 of these into combat while retaining its counter-air weapons. The new Gripen E, which was rolled out earlier this Spring at SAAB in Linköping, will even have a bigger carry-load.

ISTAR and nuclear Gripen

New ISTAR capabilities on the Gripen C/D MS20 include a modified recon pod providing infra-red sensors and real-time display of images in the cockpit, plus increased data recording.

The Link 16 datalink has been improved so that fighters and other units can more quickly exchange information with each other – making the force flying the Gripen in theory more effective against its opponent – which will come of very handy in the Close Air Support role.

The Gripen MS20 is also fully operational now when having to fly in zones where chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear weapons (CBRN) have been used.

Spearhead

The new SAAB JAS 39C/D Gripen MS20 armed with its new weapons will for some time to come make the Swedish Air Force the spearhead of technological advantage in the greater Baltic Sea area – handy for a country which is the centre of it from a geographical and even military/political perspective – having a full flirt with NATO and questionable meetings with the Russian Air Force.

© 2016 Airheadsfly.com senior contributor Marcel Burger
Featured image (top):One of the two US Air Force B-52s in formation with Swedish Air Force SAAB JAS 39 Gripen jets passing by the USS San Antonio off the coast of Southern Sweden on 13 June 2015 (Image © US Navy)

Norway: F-35 our deterence, pilots fly all jets,

He can fly any fighter jet from any nation he wants, as long as it is a F-35A. Royal Norwegian Air Force pilot Lt. Col. Martin Tesli just does that, taking brand-new American, Australian or Italian Lightning II stealthy fighter jets to the sky at Luke AFB in Arizona.

“As long as l have my cartridge, I can get into any aircraft. I cannot fly the B and C versions of course, but for the A version it doesn’t matter from which nation the jet is. Between nations flying the F-35A is completely interchangable.”

Right choice

Tesli – callsign TinTin – is on the spearhead of NATO’s northernmost first line of defence: being in charge of the Norwegian detachment that is getting acquainted with its future fast jet. At the Lockheed Martin press briefing on 7 July at the RIAT at RAF Fairford he showed full confidence in the F-35 being THE right choice for the Scandinavian nation. Despite the fact that a lot of promised functions still give a system error in the pilot’s office.

Freedom

“The Norwegian air force needs to be able to operate freely, like the army and navy need to as well. The F-35 will give us that freedom. We no longer need other eyes on the target, we can find them ourselves in really all weather conditions at substantial longer ranges then we currently can with our F-16s.”

Territory

The current RNoAF jets go up in the air
in various configurations, not always with the right sensors or weapons load-out for a full multirole tasking. No more in the future, when the RNoAF F-35s always have all sensors on board. Which will come of handy when covering 320,000 km2 of land mass and 2 million square kilometres of sea territory that the Norwegian armed forces need to defend.

Icy runway

“We go up far north, in the Arctic. The
weather can be even worse up there than in England. And especially for landing – which we do in sometimes very bad conditions with fine snow blowing over the strip and an icy runway to touchdown on – we will have the dragchute.”

Having the extra breaking power, saves aircraft and probably pilots lifes, Lt. Col. Tesli says refering to the decades of experience with the dragchute equipped F-16s.

Sharing targeting information

For many operations the F-35
will do exactly what Norway needs, Lt. Col. Tesli feels. “With the new jet I can choose to be seen or not (for enemy aircraft). Targeting information can be much easier shared with for example Royal Norwegian Navy frigates, with the F-35 serving as a much better range expander than shipborne helicopters.”

Operating capability

Currently at Luke AFB, the RNoAF just received its third F-35, with number four arriving later in July. The Norwegians clocked under 300 hours on the F-35. “But we can build on the 16,000 hours of inflight experience from the other nations. That’s why Norway can reach initial operating capability much sooner than we would otherwise can ourselves.”

As soon as the RNoAF operates 24 jets – the size of a wing – they will declare IOC on the type. All F-35s will in principle operate from Ørland near Trondheim in the south of the long-stretched country, with a permanent forward detachment at Everness near Narvik in the far north. The latter – in practise a relocation of the current F-16 base in Bødo, further south, will help Norway to react more swiftly to Russian incursions in the Polar Circle and Norwegian territory there.

Deterence

Lt. Col. Martin Tesli puts the Norwegian choice for 57 F-35As this way: “We are a long-stretched country of only 5 million people. We don’t have the mass to create military advantage, we need technology. That is what the F-35 will provide. Equipped with the Norwegian-Australian Joint Strike Missile, the new stealthy multirole fighter will provide Norway with its deterence.”

© 2016 Airheadsfly.com senior contributor Marcel Burger, at RIAT 2016
Featured image: The first Royal Norwegian Air Force F-35 (Image © Lockheed Martin)