It sounds like your typical James Bond Cold War era movie: under the cover of international research a Russian aircraft is secretly being used to spy on military bases and weapons tests. Welcome to Sweden in the year 2016, as the following story evolves.
Star of the show is the Myasishchev M-55, or the “U-2 spyplane” of the Soviet Union. Currently the only high altitude geophysical research aircraft the twin-boom jet its latest mission may have been more worth its NATO reporting name Mystic-B, then of its current additional name Geophysica.
From 1996 the Russian aircraft has been employed for measurement campaigns funded by the European Union. For another such stratospheric mission for the earth’s climate research – ran by the Stratoclim project, the M-55 touched down on Kiruna Airport in the Swedish Far North on 15 April, just when the diplomatic okay for its being in Swedish airspace ended. If Swedish sources are correct, the Russian embassy had a hand into the late arrival, proposed flight pattern during the research and pressed for a late departure.
There is controversy on why the plane was grounded much longer than planned. The Russian embassy apparently noted technical issues, while the Swedish Ministry of Defence suspects spy plans. If there was a real problem with either the plane or the crew’s intentions is uncertain, but it left Sweden on 21 April on a high altitude of about 58,000 feet – apparently with everything technically working as planned.
The Swedish Air Force (Flygvapnet) is putting new life into a war-time strategy developed during the Cold War: fighter jet operations from road strips. There is a difference: the armed forces have got to do the same job with less personnel.
Welcome to Vidsel Airbase in the Swedish far north. This is the Edwards, or Boscombe Down, of Sweden – a place for testing air weapons and the heart of many (inter)national military combat exercises when it comes to air operations.
Vidsel does have a main runway, but serviced by a network of taxiways are three additional short and less-wide runways ideal for testing road strip operations without having to close down any real riksväg (regional main roads).
And that is exactly what Swedish Air Force SAAB JAS 39C Gripen no. 229 was doing the last couple of days. At the Gripen’s F21 Wing at Luleå-Kallax Airbase 60 miles (97 km) east they call it “a new concept”, but it is actually just perfecting an old plan to the current state of the military. Meaning, things have to be done with less people and less equipment since Sweden abolished obligatory military service to all young men on 1 July 2010 and has suffered from severe budget restrains.
The redefined concept will see the Gripen serviced, (re)armed and (re)fueled by 6 personnel on a forward operating location, using only two modified vans with equipment per jet plus a fuel truck travelling between several aircraft and a fuel depot.
Gripen combat fleet survivability
Initially four conscripts would be enough to maintain the first Gripen A version, where many systems are easily exchangeable modules. But some sort of grouping with more personnel and vehicles was still the starting point. The new concept makes it possible to have a unit of one fighter jet, a pilot and six aircraft technicians can operate entirely on its own. Aircraft dispersed over a larger area increases the survivability of the combat fleet in times of war, since they will be complicated to hit by the enemy.
Europe’s largest test range
Sweden’s military future when it comes to the air weapon is very much probed near Vidsel, where the test range close by is Europe’s largest overland. During the past half a century everything from parachutes to ATC systems and space vehicles have been tried there. NATO jets are regularly using the 6,210 square miles (10,000 km2) of restricted airspace and 2,500 square miles (3,300 km2) of restricted ground space as well.
With recent tests of the Gripen at a Forward Operating Location at Vidsel being very positive F21 Wing is now eager to have additional try-outs on all its three main bases in the north of Sweden: Luleå-Kallax (homebase), Vidsel and Jokkmokk. The latter, on the edge of the Polar Circle, has not only one main runway but three shorter and smaller runways on base plus three road strips just outside the base perimeter. The latter three are only to be used in wartime though, and will not be put to the test at the moment.
The new concept will likely be “exported” to the other two Gripen units of the Swedish Air Force as well: F17 Wing at Ronneby near Sweden’s main naval base in Karlskrona in the southeast of the country and F7 at Såtenäs in the heart of Central Sweden.
Gripen E roll-out
Combined the three combat wings of the Swedish Air Force fly 76 operational single-seat C and 12 two-seat D versions. Like Brazil, Stockholm has ordered the new, larger and more capable Gripen E, of which at least 60 are to stream to the Swedish Air Force the coming years. The first prototype Gripen E is to be rolled out by SAAB in Linköping on 18 May this year.