In their first involvement in a combat operation, participating in the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation’s (Nato’s) Operation Unified Protector over Libya last year, Saab JAS39 Gripen fighters of the Swedish Air Force achieved an availability rate of more than 92% at their forward operating base in Italy. (Gripen translates into English as Griffin.)
Although not a member of Nato, Sweden initially contributed eight Gripens, later reducing this number to five, in an operation the Swedes code-named Karakal. Based at Sigonella Air Base, in Sicily, and employed purely in the reconnaissance role, the Gripens flew some 650 sorties and took more than 40% of the Nato-led coalition’s reconnaissance images.
“The Gripen was really, really endorsed in Libya. It went there quietly and did the task in hand,” highlights Saab regional director: Europe Richard Smith. “After the first week, the Gripen was given priority-one tasking for air-to-air refuelling due to the importance of its imagery.”
“The fighter is capable of doing multiple roles – air-to-air, air-to-surface, reconnaissance,” explains Swedish Air Force Chief of Staff Major-General Micael Bydén. “It’s very flexible. You don’t need to decide to have only air-to-air weapons or air-to-ground weapons. You can have both. It has a swing-role capability. We’ve never had that before. In comparison, the last generation of [Swedish] fighters, the [Saab] Viggen – we had four, five versions (ground attack, anti-ship, reconnaissance, fighter and training). Now we have a single aircraft. This is a major change. “We’ve been working with this since the mid-1990s. I would say that ‘multirole’ and ‘flexibility’ would be the key words referring to this system – and sustainability.”
The designation prefix JAS stands for ‘fighter, attack, reconnaissance’; the current models are the JAS39C single-seat and JAS39D two-seat aircraft. All current Gripen export users operate only the JAS39C/D. The South African Air Force (SAAF) became the first export customer for the Gripen in 1999, although it was not the first country outside Sweden to receive the aircraft. Since then, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Thailand have all ordered and received Gripens.
The improvements incorporated in the JAS39C/D include air-to-air refuelling capability; an on-board oxygen generating system; systems that are interoperable with those of Nato (since many non-Nato countries use Nato-standard systems, this effectively gives the JAS39C/D global interoperability); Nato-standard common pylons and external stores (payload) interfaces; new, enhanced, electronic warfare systems; large (6" × 8", or 15.24 cm × 20.32 cm) multifunction displays; enhanced strike capability and worldwide climate clearance (the JAS39C/D can operate in temperatures from – 40˚ C to 45˚ C).
The JAS39C/D models are each powered by a single Volvo Aero RM12 turbofan with afterburner, which is based on the General Electric F404 engine. This produces a thrust of 54 kN (12 000 lb) dry and 80 kN (18 100 lb) with afterburner, giving a top speed 1.8 times the speed of sound. It is equipped with full authority digital engine control. Internal fuel capacity is 2 700 l and the service ceiling is above 15 000 m (50 000 ft).
The aircraft is fitted with the Saab (previously Ericsson) PS-05/A pulse doppler radar, which can operate in air-to-air and air-to-surface (both land and sea) mode. For example, the air-to-air modes are long-range search, track-while-scan, multiple priority target tracking, priority target tracking, single target tracking and air combat mode.
The Gripen can be armed with short and beyond-visual-range (BVR) air-to-air missiles, air-to-surface missiles, antiship missiles, precision-guided munitions and unguided free fall bombs. The JAS39C also has a built-in 27 mm Mauser BK-27 cannon. Loaded for an air-to-ground mission, with self-defence weapons, the aircraft has a combat radius greater than 650 nautical miles (1 200 km).
“The [SAAF] wanted one platform to fulfil all their [fighter] roles,” explains Saab Gripen export business head Eddy de la Motte. “This would save a lot of money. They also wanted a new technology base and to support high-technology industrial development, yet have a low-risk approach.”
The result was the advanced light fighter aircraft, or Alfa, programme, which was won by the Gripen. In 1997, the SAAF operated 49 Denel Cheetahs and 70 Dassault Mirage F1s. In addition, the SAAF had 251 Impala Mk I and Mk II (Aermacchi MB326M and MB326K respectively) aircraft for training and light attack.
These were all replaced by 26 Gripens and 24 BAE Systems Hawk fighter-trainers in a single $2.2-billion deal. “SAAF front-line fighters were reduced by some 80%, yet the SAAF retained all the capabilities that previously had required several aircraft,” affirms De la Motte. “The Gripen is a multi- and swing-role fighter. It’s a very flexible solution, it can generate lots of missions, it’s Nato compatible and can use an unrivalled mix of weapons, sensors and other payloads.”
He argues that the Gripen won the Alfa competition because of price (fly-away price, complete package price), life-cycle costs and financing, as well as strategic and diplomatic factors (including intergovernmental relationships, freedom of operation and the provision of licences). “We provide independence. [Sweden] is a neutral country. We are not part of any alliance.”
Offsets and Investments
In return for the Gripen/Hawk contract, Saab and BAE Systems had to provide South Africa with offsets, known as industrial participation (IP). These involved making or facilitating investments, technology and skills transfer and achieving sales of South African-made products and services.
This IP was divided into Defence IP (Dip), focused on the South African aerospace and defence industries, and National IP (Nip), directed at civilian sectors of the local economy. The two companies had a joint Dip obligation of $1.5-billion and a joint Nip obligation of $8.7-billion. Oversight of Dip was vested in South African defence acquisition and research and development agency Armscor. Nip was overseen by the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI).
All Dip claims were documented in detail and Dip credits were awarded by Armscor. Dip programmes have included the manu-facture in South Africa of Gripen main landing gear units (MLGUs) and rear fuselages; the design engineering, rapid prototyping and certification of Nato-standard pylons for the Gripen; the purchase of South African health and usage monitoring systems for Swedish Air Force helicopters, the South African developed audio control unit for the Gripen, and the adoption of the South African helmet sight tracker system for the Gripen and Eurofighter Typhoon.
To execute their Nip obligations, Saab and BAE Systems set up a joint venture, Sanip. All Nip claims had to be documented in a paper trail that could be completely audited. Nip involved Sanip bringing $8.7-billion worth of economic benefits to South Africa. Examples of beneficiaries of Nip included Dunlop tyres (Durban and Ladysmith), Silplat platinum jewellery (Cape Town), Global Forest Projects (now York Timber), ABB (exporting South African-manufactured power station components to the US) and Atlas Copco (the manufacture of heavy mining equipment for export).
“Over 1 000 potential Nip and Dip projects were received and considered. More than 150 projects were implemented from April 2000. Over 75 South African companies partnered with Saab and BAE Systems on Nip and Dip projects,” reports De la Motte. “It’s been confirmed that we’ve met our obligations on both sides. All Dip is now done, obligations discharged. All Nip is also now fully discharged. I believe that we exceeded our Dip and Nip obligations a bit.” In addition, the IP programmes established Saab in South Africa. “Based on our experience on Dip and Nip, Saab acquired Grintek and established Saab South Africa,” he points out.
Today, Saab South Africa comprises Electronic Defence Systems (previously Saab Avitronics), which specialises in electronic warfare and radar; Support & Service (once known as Logtronics), responsible for all the logistical support business; Aeronautics; Saab Systems Grintek, covering command and control systems, as well as radio and other communications systems; and Saab Grintek Technologies, which is in the commercialtelecommunications business.
Saab’s biggest operation outside Sweden, Saab South Africa, employs 1 064 people and last year had a turnover of R1.4-billion, 60% of which came from exports. It has become a manufacturing base for the Swedish group in Africa, and is supplying and serving countries in East and West Africa, as well as Southern Africa. It is developing markets in Asia, Latin America and, indeed, Europe. Saab South Africa will be supporting the SAAF Gripens throughout their life spans, which should be 30 to 40 years. The company employs highly skilled and technical staff and some 10% of its turnover is invested in research and develop-ment.
Regarding intellectual property, “what is developed in South Africa stays in South Africa”, assures De la Motte. When required, Saab South Africa receives the support of the appropriate Saab business in Sweden; conversely, the local company can support the Swedish units of its parent group.
From 2006 to 2011, Saab also owned 20% of South African State-owned defenceindustrial group Denel’s aerostructures business, known during this period as Denel Saab Aerostructures (DSA). After Saab sold its share back to Denel, the company was renamed Denel Aerostructures (DAe). The DTI was so eager to encourage Saab to invest in this business that, a written reply to a Parliamentary question has revealed, it awarded the Swedish group an IP investment credits multiplier of 67.64, by far the highest such multiplier awarded by the Department for an IP investment (see Engineering News June 1, 2012). The result was that an invest- ment of $8 870 968 received investment credits worth $600-million.
DSA was responsible for the JAS39C/D Gripen MLGUs, rear fuselages and Nato-standard pylons, and DAe continues to produce these parts of the aircraft. To date, the South African company has shipped more than 100 MLGUs, more than 100 rear fuselages and more than 70 shipsets of pylons (each shipset comprising five pylons) to Saab in Sweden.
Griffins, Cheetahs and Lions
South Africa’s Gripens are all assigned to the SAAF’s 2 Squadron, the renowned ‘Flying Cheetahs.’ The unit’s home base is Air Force Base (AFB) Makhado, in Limpopo province. In March and April, Gripens from the South African, Czech, Hungarian and Swedish Air Forces all participated in Exercise Lion Effort 2012, in Sweden. Thailand sent observers. Aero Vodochody L159 light strike aircraft from the Czech Air Force and Swedish Air Force Airborne Early Warning and Control and air-to-air refuelling aircraft also took part, as did the Swedish Air Force’s ground radars and fighter control centre and Swedish Army anti-aircraft units.
Speaking to South African media at Sweden’s Ronneby AFB (home of the F17 fighter wing) during Lion Effort, SAAF director: force preparation Major-General Tsoku Khumalo affirmed that: “I think we’ve got the best among the best aircraft in the world. And our pilots are measuring up. We’re holding our own. Some systems [on the Gripen] are still undergoing operational testing and evaluation. We’ve learnt quite a lot about what the capabilities of the Gripen are. We’re going to gain a lot out of the Gripens as we operate them. It’s our job to protect our sovereignty. We’ve got the capability, we’ve got the equipment, we’ve got the people.”
Lion Effort was the first time since the Korean War (1950–1953) that the SAAF participated in a multinational air operation (although it has and does regularly take part in binational operations). The exercise cost the country some R2.5-million, including shipping and fuel costs, and subsistence and transport for the 41 personnel involved. The four SAAF Gripens used were already in Sweden, having been handed over by Saab but not shipped to South Africa. The exercise costs were included in this year’s Budget, and some of the costs would have been incurred in South Africa, for training, anyway.
The SAAF contingent was led by Colonel Pierre Venter and included pilots, mission controllers and maintenance and logistics personnel. “Our Air Force is very keen to learn about combined [multinational] air operations,” he told journalists. “We know about this and we want to practise this. Our mission controllers are [also] getting some real good exposure.”
Lion Effort involved air combat manoeuvreing (dogfighting), BVR air-to-air combat, close air support, attack on ground-based air defence systems and air-to-air refuelling. The aircraft involved were split into two sides, Red and Blue, with the anti-aircraft systems assigned to the Red Force. The South African pilots gained experience not only in participating in large multinational formations, but also in leading them. Thus, 2 Squadron officer commanding Lieutenant-Colonel Gys van der Walt found himself leading 27-aircraft formations.
“In an exercise like this, you realise how similar [fighter pilots] are,” he stated. “[SAAF fighter pilots] do a lot of in-visual- range combat [training]. We don’t have the airborne radar systems and command-and-control you have here [in Europe]. We have to identify [targets] visually. In that respect, we’re good!” (SAAF Gripens are not yet fitted with BVR missiles.)
At home, the Gripen has already been used operationally. “For every game that was played in the [2010 FIFA] World Cup, we were in the air – an hour before, during the game and an hour afterwards; with a total of tenaircraft,” he recounts. “We had, in total, 63 intercepts during the World Cup period, mostly at night. None were malicious – most were errors of airmanship. We asked them to leave the [restricted] airspace, which they did, rapidly.” The squadron has also carried out some antismuggling missions, against light aircraft smuggling, for example cigarettes.
Moreover, it is not just an air combat asset. With its excellent sea-search radar capability, the Gripen could be used in antipiracy missions. Moreover, with its Link ZA datalink, “the Gripen can feed information into command-and-control systems, including that for the ground forces”, highlighted Venter. “It can contribute to land battle situational awareness – not only air battle and sea battle situational awareness. It’s about accessing information about where the foe is, and this platform does that.”
For the SAAF, “our focus is on consolidating” the technological advances obtained with the Gripen, reported Venter. The aircraft are already being cycled through software upgrades, and such upgrades will be a regular feature in the coming decades.
Currently, the SAAF’s Gripen pilots are assigned fewer flying hours a year than Nato standards. “I think we should be receiving many more than we are getting at the moment,” he affirmed. But the “budget is sufficient for the number of pilots we have, for training”. Every flying hour is used to the maximum for training. At the moment, South Africa has more Gripens than it has pilots qualified to fly them. The aircraft are being rotated to ensure that all are flown. A prescribed number of aircraft must be on the flightline every morning, ready to fly.
“Every year, we want to increase the number of youngsters we train as pilots,” said Khumalo at Ronneby. “We will try [to ensure] that our pilots, are able to get 180 [flying] hours per annum. This is how you maintain your currency in piloting your aircraft. You can’t sacrifice the hours you need to maintain currency.”
For Sweden and Saab, the focus is on the development of the new-generation Gripen, or Gripen NG, which is now also being referred to as the JAS39E/F. “The recommendation from the [Armed Forces] Supreme Commander to the [Swedish] government would be to develop the Gripen – a Gripen that can take more fuel, more thrust, more weapons and better sensors,” reports Bydén. “At least 60 to 80 new aircraft. The tasks we are given today by the government – to be able to do these; these are the numbers we require.”
The JAS39E/F has been selected (but not yet ordered) by the Swiss Air Force and is being marketed to Brazil, Denmark and the Netherlands. Other possible future target markets include Finland and Turkey. “We’re pitching it as a fifth-generation fighter but it costs a fraction of the [Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighter],” says Smith.
But the development of the JAS39E/F by no means signals the end of the line for the JAS39C/D. The earlier model will continue to be offered on the market. “We’re offering the C/D to Thailand [for follow-up orders], Malaysia, Croatia, Ecuador and Slovakia,” explains De la Motte. “We could also offer more aircraft to the Czech Republic. There may be opportunities in the Balkans (depending on the local economies) and in Asia. DAe would make the MLGUs, rear fuselages and pylons for any and all of these orders that we would get.”
As for Exercise Lion Effort, this happens every three years, and South Africa will host Lion Effort 2018 (the 2015 exercise will be in the Czech Republic).