According to variopus sources on Wednesday 26 April, Bulgaria has selected the Saab Gripen to replace its small fleet of ageing MiG-29 fighter aircraft. The Swedish over topped that of Portugal for used F-16s, as well as an Italian offer for second hand Eurofighter Typhoons.
A special committee is to start negotiations with Sweden for a deal involving Saab Gripen C and D fighter jets, at a total estimated cost of 836 million USD. Off set orders are likely part of the deal.
Bulgaria now operates about a dozen MiG-29 aircraft, which were modernized over the last years to meet NATO standards. Also, the country recently ordered additional engines from Russia in an effort the extend the MiG-29’s service life.
Bulgaria has been on the market for a replacement fighter aircraft for a number of years. Neighbouring Romania has opted for second hand F-16s from Portugal to replace even older MiG-21s.
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.
During the annual Saab Gripen seminar, which was held on Thursday 17 March, Ulf Nilsson, head of Saab business area Aeronautics, and Richard Smith, head of Gripen marketing and sale, gave an update on the status on various developments on the Gripen.
At this moment, manufacturing of the first Gripen E prototype is still on schedule and within budget, as the aircraft is in final assembly now. Roll out is planned to take place at 18 May this year. This protoype will be used as test aircraft, so test equipment will be installed in it.
Competitions and tenders
At this moment, SAAB is involved in different competitions and tenders to market the Gripen system. Smith stated the Gripen has been offered to Croatia and Bulgaria as replacement of eageing eastern type of fighter aircraft. Negotiations started with Slovakia for delivery of 8 Gripens to replace the MiG-29 Fulcrum aircraft, which are reaching the end of their service life. Finland is looking for new aircraft as replacement for the F-18 Hornet, in which SAAB participates in a tender for 40 Gripen E/F aircraft. Belgium still has to decide what will be the successor of the F-16’s, and the Gripen will take part in the tender for 30-36 frames. In the Asian Pacific market, SAAB started the negotiating process with Malaysia, and they’re even confident the Gripen has in chance in Indonesia. Further more, SAAB stll has a focuss on India, as the Swedish and Indian Prime ministers met in India recently. In the Americas-region Colombia got marketing info about the Gripen system.
Currently, there are 50 Brazilian engineers in Linköping, Sweden, who are being trained to learn the maintenance and development tools of the Gripen and the program. In April the next group will arrive in Sweden, and finally it is expected some 350 Brazilians have found there way to Linköping. SAAB and Embraer are building a new test and engineering center at Embraer’s industrial plant in Gavião Peixoto, Brazil. This will support the operations of the Brazilian Air Force Gripen aircraft.
SAAB expects to sell 400 aircraft in the next 20 years, with a backlog of 96 aircraft at the moment (60 Gripen E’s for Sweden and 36 for Brazil). At this moment the Gripen is already in service with the Swedish military, as well as in Thailand, South Africa, Czech Republic and Hungary.
On paper the Indian Air Force has roughly 700 fighter and strike jets, but in reality slightly only about half are operational raising concern about how effective the military of the 2nd largest population in the world is being protected.
The average aircraft availability measured over the entire year is about 50 to 55 percent, Defence officials have admitted towards the parliamentary committee on defence matters. About 20 percent of those jets are simply grounded because of the lack of spare parts, but Indian Air Force sources say that concerns mostly the older Soviet-era jets like the approx. 120 MiG-21 Bisons, 80 MiG-27 Bahadurs and 130 to 135 SEPECAT Shamshers (Jaguars).
The government watchdog authority also slashed the reputation of the Air Force’s three Ilyushin/Beriev A-50 AWACS aircraft. Lack of trained aircrew, lack of bases to operate from, lack of funds and resources for the aircraft maintenance have seriously hampered the effectiveness of the airborne radar and intelligence gathering platforms.
The Indian Navy MiG-29K shipborne fighter fleet is getting closer to completion. Russian Aircraft Corporation said another four will be delivered before 2016 starts.
On 11 December 2015 two Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-29K (NATO-reporting name “Fulcrum”) made their way to the Indian Navy, built by the Russian Aircraft Corporation. The aircraft form the main element of the combat air wing of the Indian Navy aircraft carrier INS Vikramaditya and from 2018 also of the new INS Vikrant.
India ordered a total of 45 MiG-29Ks, sixteen in a contract from 2004 followed by a second deal for 29 aircraft in 2010. The Russian Navy operates the type as well.
Indian MiG-29K squadrons
In the end the Indian Navy will form four squadrons with its Fulcrums: the first for the Vikramaditya, the second shore-based in Goa, the third shore-based at Dega (Vizag) and the fourth for the Vikrant. The shore-based units will rotate with the shipborne ones or may even be deployed together at sea.
INS Vikrant Carrier Air Wing
The INS Vikrant is the first aircraft carrier ever built in India. The gas turbine powered vessel is set to be able to operate 20 MiG-29Ks plus 15 indigenous HAL Tejas attack and close air support aircraft. The combat element of the carrier air wing will be supported by a pair of Kamov Ka-31 (“Helix”), two Westland Sea Kings and 2 HAL Dhruv utility helicopters.