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The Saab Gripen E test program has surpassed 300 flight hours and the company is preparing to deliver production aircraft to the Swedish Air Force in 2020.
“We are proceeding according to plan and are delivering according to our customers’ expectations,” Eddy de la Motte, the head of Saab’s Gripen E/F business unit, told webinar viewers during a briefing on Mar. 26.
The annual update on the Gripen program was moved to an online forum in response to the coronavirus pandemic. Although Sweden has for now adopted a notably different approach to addressing the spread of COVID-19 than its neighbours – most businesses remain open – defence and aerospace journalists and other interested attendees were confined to virtual participation.
“Saab is not one of those companies that is feeling immediate consequences because of the situation given a large order backlog and the business model that we use,” said Ellen Molin, head of Business Area Support Services. “We are doing everything we can to work on development and production.”
The Gripen E is among three fighter jets contending to replace the Royal Canadian Air Force fleet of CF-188 Hornets. The others are the Lockheed Martin F-35A Lightning II and the Block III Boeing FA-18E/F Super Hornet. The Gripen E is the only one not yet in service.
The briefing was an opportunity for Saab to highlight the progress of the flight test program and forthcoming deliveries to the first customers, Sweden and Brazil. The test program now includes six aircraft and will be expanding to two sites this year involving test pilots from Saab, the Swedish defence materiel administration, and the Swedish Air Force.
The accelerated test and verification program will be “more efficient,” said de la Motte. “We are now shifting focus to more testing on the tactical systems and the sensors.”
Saab had high expectations for the Gripen E’s enhanced fused sensor suite and decision-support capabilities before flight testing began, he said. But the Active Electronically-Scanned Array (AESA) radar, passive infrared search and track (IRST) sensor, tailored datalink and multi-function electronic warfare (EW) system “are preforming better than expected.”
Testing has also included an electronic jammer pod to complement the internal active EW system, flights with the MBDA Meteor beyond-visual-range air-to-air missile, and firing of the short-range IRIS-T air-to-air missile.
The first production Gripen E aircraft rolled off the line in Linköping, Sweden in August 2019 at a ceremony with the Brazilian government and Air Force. A second production aircraft followed in December for the Swedish Air Force. Two more aircraft for Sweden will be delivered later in 2020 to their joint verification and validation program.
The first Brazilian jet is scheduled to arrive in country by the end of 2020. Brazil has ordered 36, 28 in the single-seat E variant and eight in the two-seat F model.
In advance of the Brazilian flight test program and the launch of a Gripen flight test centre in Brazil, Saab has transferred aircraft intellectual property and knowledge to hundreds of Brazilian technicians, test engineers and pilots at its production facility in Linköping. Furthermore, the Gripen Design and Development Centre in Brazil has cut the first metal on the F-model two seat variant, to be delivered in 2023.
Saab is also hoping to expand its customer base as the Gripen E enters service. In February, the company demonstrated two of its test aircraft at Pirkkala Air Base in southern Finland as part of the HX Challenge, the first stage of a capability assessment of five aircraft vying to replace the Finnish Air Force fleet of F/A-18 C and D Hornets. The Gripen is up against the Eurofighter Typhoon, Dassault Rafale, Lockheed Martin F-35A and Boeing F/A-18 Super Hornet.
The two aircraft were demonstrated alongside a Saab GlobalEye airborne early warning and control platform, a multi-role air, maritime and ground surveillance system based on the Bombardier Global 6000/6500 jet. As part of a package with Finland, Saab is proposing to transfer intellectual property to operate maintenance, repair and overhaul facilities, spares production, final assembly and a development and sustainment centre.
“We fully understand the needs of national security and the ability to control critical technology,” said de la Motte.
A similar offer is likely to be part of Saab’s pitch to Canada when the request for proposals closes on June 30. In March, the company announced a “Gripen for Canada Team” that includes IMP Aerospace & Defence, CAE, Peraton Canada and GE Aviation. De la Motte said the proposal for 88 Gripen E jets would include “high skilled jobs” as well as aircraft and systems built by Canadians.
Both de la Motte and Molin emphasized the “smart and cost-efficient support concept inherent in the aircraft design” that now includes the ability to 3D print spare parts for battle damage repair in a forward hangar to allow grounded aircraft to return to a main operating base.
That efficiency was underscored by Col Torgny Fälthammar, head of the Gripen program for the Air Staff of the Swedish Air Force (SAF). A former Saab 37 Viggen and Gripen C fighter pilot, he noted the SAF “operates in a domain where the time to react is sometimes very short – the aircraft and systems we face have a very high velocity.”
Since Sweden can’t field superior numbers, “we have to strive for the best balance between technology, competence and tactics, and having the relevant numbers… [and] we believe we have found that in the Gripen system.”
The Gripen E will introduce “high tech, state-of-the-art systems,” he added. But “being a small country, we always have to think about money and affordability.”