Despite continued criticism on the jet’s performance, India still seems to have enough confidence in its indigenous Tejas fighter jet to open up a second production line. Meanwhile, Swedish Saab is offering its Airborne Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) radar to be installed in the Tejas.
The government in New Delhi has just cleared a 200 million USD investment to open up a second Tejas production line next to the existing one at Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL). The news was announced on this week at the Aero India airshow in Bengaluru.
The Tejas jets produced, will solely be used the Indian Air Force, since the Indian Navy has rejected the naval variant and is now looking for 57 new fighter jets elsewhere. The Dassault Rafale and Boeing F/A-18 Super Hornet are likely candidates.
Saab hopes to sell the Indians its Gripen fighter jets instead. Possibly to win Indian harts, the Swedes now also offer their Airborne Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) radar plus an additional electronic warfare suite for use in the Tejas.
It’s not regularly that we celebrate aviation milestones at Airheadsfly.com. In fact we only did it once before and back then, it was the 40th birthday of the F-16 that was cause for celebrations. But when a legendary fighter jet such as the Saab Viggen turns 50 years of age, we gladly make an exception again. Time to dig up a few images – old & new! – of this prime and impressive example of Swedish aviation ingenuity.
The Viggen first flew on 8 February 1967 by the hands of Saab chief test pilot Erik Dahlström. The flight lasted 43 minutes, during which the jet performed as expected. In 1968, Stockholm ordered 175 jets, the first of which were delivered in 1971. The typical Viggen shape, dominated by the huge wings and the canards in front of it, became a familiar sight in Swedish skies – but not elsewhere.
The Viggen was successful in Sweden, which eventually made use of no less than 329 aircraft. But competing against – yes! – the F-16 on the international fighter jet market proved to be a bridge too far for the Swedish design, which was very practical but lacked the manoeuvrability and impressive thrust to weight ratio of the F-16.
The last of the Swedish Viggens were retired in 2007. Despite never being used by air forces outside Sweden, quite a number of Viggens are currently preserved in European aviation museums. One aircraft keeps gracing the skies as part of the Swedish Air Force Historic Flight.
Boeing this week gave itself a handful of exactly the right cards when it comes to the winning the T-X competition that is aimed at replacing hundreds of ageing US Air Force T-38 training jets over the next decade. Their solution is the twin-tailed, single-engined and apparently cleverly designed Boeing T-X, developed in partnership with Swedish Saab. The new jet may very well come out victorious.
It’s not often these days that a major aircraft manufacturer unveils a jet that was 100 percent designed from scratch. All eyes were therefore set on Boeing as the company revealed its T-X on Tuesday 13 September. Prior to that, only an artist’s impression and a few sneak peeks of the aircraftwere revealed. Boeing is producing two aircraft at first, which are registered as BT-X in the Federal Aviation Authority register.
The result positively surprised many; a futuristic looking jet that however also steals some looks from the legendary F-104 Starfighter, especially when it comes to the front section. The rear more resembles modern fighter such as the F-15, F-22 and F-35. As a whole, it even looks remarkably similar to the new-ish AirLand Scorpion.
And yet, the BT-X was actually not 100 percent designed from scratch and steals more than just looks for other jets. It steal the F-16’s front and main landing gear and internally uses many parts of the Saab Gripen. In the past, this design method was also succesfully used on aircraft such as the F-117. Commonality helps keeping development and production costs low and gives the jet an immediate edge over its competitors, being the Lockheed Martin/Korea Aerospace Industries T-50, Leonardo/Raytheon T-100 (based on the M-346) and the Northrop Grumman T-X design. According to Boeing, their BT-X can be produced and put together relatively simple, whatever that precisely means.
Yes, Lockheed Martin T-50 is an exisiting design and also should benefit from lower development costs, and the same goes for the T-100. But both are non-US designs, and the lengthy and unimpressive process that finally led to the US designed KC-46 over the existing European Airbus A330 MRTT as the US Air Force’s next tanker aircraft, proves Washington’s preference for US designs.
Boeing T-38 contract
The Boeing T-X is just that: a design mainly from a US contractor, with just the right amount of development to be done. Considering criticised projects such as the And remember, Boeing earlier in 2016 won a ten-year contract worth $855 million for updating T-38 trainer jets, the very aircraft the T-X will replace. It’s the perfect way to gain expertise and insight into the exact requirements of modern day fighter pilot training.
Engine Also, Boeing uses the afterburning General Electric F404 engine in its design, as do the T-50 and Northrop Grumman T-X competitor – not to mention the Saab Gripen. The yet-to-fly Leonardo/Raytheon T-100 will use two Honeywell/ITEC F124 turbofans and is he only contender to use two engines and not use afterburner. That’s a problem for the joint US-Italian designed T-100 right there in terms of costs, maintenance and performance. Northrop Grumman meanwhile has it hands full with developing the new Longe Range Strike Bomber (LRS-B), also known as the future B-21.
The US Air Force’s new trainer should be fully operational in 2024 at the latest. A decision on which design wins the competition, is to be taken over the next few years. Boeing drew its cards right. No need even for a pokerface, it seems.
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.