The year 2017 will be the year that for the first time in history sees joint air defense over four European countries. Not only are Belgium and the Netherlands operating a combined Quick Reaction Alert (QRA) since 1 January 2017, starting this summer the Czech Republic and Slovakia will do the same. The latter countries today agreed on cooperation.
The joint efforts are quite remarkable in a time of increasing international tension, although the combined effort of Belgium and the Netherlands has been on the cards for quite some time already. Whereas until last year both countries each had four F-16s on constant standby, they now take turns in keeping an eye out for airliners gone astray or potential threats, thus saving costs. Being small countries, they apparently can afford slighly longer transit times for the F-16s to get close to the action.
Czechs and Slovaks
The Czechs and Slovakians also talked about joint air defense before, but mostly in light of Slovakia maybe also leasing Saab Gripen fighter jets, as does the Czech Republic. While Slovakia for now continues to operate older MiG-29 Fulcrums, both countries today still agreed to keep a watch over each other’s skies. The agreement should be officaly ratified and come into effect later this year.
Meanwhile, it will be interesting to see what effect the cooperation between Belgium and the Netherlands has on the former’s selection of a new fighter jet to replace the F-16. The Netherlands has already opted for the F-35 Lightning II, but Belgium is still undediced. The Belgians are looking at the F-35, Boeing F/A-18 Super Hornet, Saab gripen and Dassault Rafale.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
Saab unveiled its long expected Gripen NG (Next Generation) on Wednesday 18 May during a rollout ceremony at its development and production facility in Linköping in central Sweden. As reported already, the new Gripen NG – also known as Gripen E/F – is basically a bigger version of the current Gripen C/D. And, Saab adds, better foremost.
The new Gripen was rolled out after one hour of speeches from officials of both Saab and the Swedish and Brazilian air forces. So far, Sweden and Brazil are the only customers for the latest Gripen. Sweden has ordered 60 aircraft (with a desire for 70) while Brazil is expecting 36 jets, most of those to be produced locally in Brazil.
Saab thinks it is able to produce 30 fighters a year at its plant in Linköping, Sweden. The first E is planned to be delivered to the Swedish Air Force in 2019, with the first operational division of two dozen aircraft in 2023 and final deliveries in 2026. Brazil might expand its 36 Gripen-E to more, including export versions to other Latin American countries.
The Flygvapnet officially currently has 97 JAS 39 Gripen C/Ds, of which about 86 are operational. Hungary, the Czech Republic, South Africa and Thailand together have combined another 66 Gripens on strength.
More, larger, newer
The new generation Gripen is powered by a General Electric F414-400 engine that supplies 22,000 lbs. of thrust (+40% compared to power plant Gripen C/D), and is designed to serve 30 to 40 years while delivering low maintenance costs. The jet offers more fuel (+40%), range and payload (+20%) than earlier Gripens. Despite it all, it is only 3 percent bigger than the Gripen C/D. According to Saab, the newer radar and sensors of the Gripen are able to detect new generation stealth aircraft like the Lockheed Martin F-35 and the Sukhoi PAK-T50.
According to Saab, the Gripen E/F is designed to combat the most advanced threats anywhere, offering adaptability and the capability to operate in complex scenarios. The Gripen project offers industrial offsets as well as knowledge transfer between countries in order to strengthen industries.
The Swedes always have had any eye for designing smart and flexible fighter jets. Like previous generations of aircraft the Gripen is suited for operations from rural road and offers great Independence from complex and costly logistical systems. It’s therefore no surprise that Saab now markets its new Gripen as the ‘smart fighter’.
Contrary to reports from Helsinki in April, the US Departement of Defense will not offer the Boeing F-15 Eagle and Lockheed Martin F-16 Fighting Falcon to Finland as possible replacements for the country’s fleet of ‘legacy’ F-18 Hornets. Washington told Helsinki it will not respond to Finland’s Request for Information (RfI) for those jets, Finnish MoD confirmed on Monday 2 May. Washington however will send information on the Boeing F/A-18 Super Hornet and Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II.
Both the F-15 and F-16 were named on a list of candidates released by Helsinki in April. Both were designed in the 70s and are nearing the end of production in the US. Their inclusion in Finland’s list – and the inclusion of the F-15 in particular – came as a surprise to many, although officials earlier said that Finland was open to all offers that met the conditions of the HX-fighter project. That is the name assigned to the F-18 Hornet replacement program.
The candidates now left in that program, are the Dassault Rafale, Eurofighter Typhoon, Boeing F-18 Super Hornet, Lockheed Martin F-35 and Saab’s next generation JAS-39 Gripen. The latter will see its rollout of the factory in Sweden on 18 May.
All manufacturers will have to send Helsinki all required information by the end of this year. Comparison of the performances of all jets is scheduled for 2018 and a final decision is expected not before 2021.