Swedish aerospace giant Saab conducted the first flight of its third Gripen E (serial 39-10) test aircraft on June 10. It followed the first two test examples (39-8 and 39-9), which respectively flew in June 2017 and November 2018.
Launch customer the Swedish Air Force will receive 60 Gripen Es with the first export customer, Brazil, currently signed-up to 36 aircraft comprising 28 single-seaters and eight two-seat F-models.
However, one of Saab’s strongest leads for Gripen E — Switzerland — looks to have dramatically dumped the Swedish jet from its fighter competition. Saab announced on June 13 that the Swiss defence procurement agency, armasuisse, ‘has formally recommended to Saab not to participate with Gripen E in the flight tests in Switzerland.’
A Saab news release added: ‘The reason is that the flight tests have been designed to only evaluate aircraft that are operationally ready in 2019. The flight tests are part of the fighter evaluation process that foresees aircraft deliveries in 2025. Gripen E will enter into operational service years before Switzerland has scheduled deliveries and will meet all its defined capabilities. However, the Gripen E development plan does not match the Swiss plan to perform flight tests with aircraft that are operationally ready in 2019. Therefore, Saab has decided not to attend the Swiss flight tests in Payerne 24-28 June.’
Saab initially planned to launch Gripen E as a joint Swedish-Swiss initiative, but Switzerland narrowly rejected the new fighter plans in a 2014 referendum. Regardless, the Swedish Air Force decided to go ahead with its plan for 60 new fighters and partnered with Brazil.
Under its Air 2030 initiative, Switzerland is looking to buy 30-40 fighters as well as ground-based air defence systems worth up to 8bn CHF. Deliveries should commence in 2025.
In July 2018 armasuisse issued a request for proposals (RfP) for a new fighter to Eurofighter (Airbus), Gripen (Saab), Rafale (Dassault) and F-35 (Lockheed Martin). The winning aircraft will replace the Swiss Air Force’s remaining fleet of 29 F-5s and 30 F/A-18C/Ds. All manufacturers had responded to the RFI by the end of January and Eurofighter and Lockheed Martin have completed in-country evaluations thus far.
Saab announced on January 25 that its proposal covered options for 30, and 40, new-build Gripen Es and it offered Swiss industrial participation worth 100 per cent of the contract value.
Saab says that since the submission of the proposal in January, armasuisse’ expectations on the flight tests have: ‘evolved to expect participation of operationally ready aircraft. As Gripen E is yet to become operational, Saab has presented solutions to perform the Swiss flight tests in 2019. An offer to complement the Gripen E test aircraft with an operational Gripen C aircraft for the flight tests in June 2019 has not been accepted by armasuisse. Competitors have showcased capabilities on existing platforms, which are different to the versions offered for delivery.’
It added: ‘We believe that Gripen E is the best choice for Switzerland and the offer, as presented in January 2019, still stands. Saab is committed to deliver at least 40 Gripen E fighter aircraft on time, meeting requirements and within planned budget, including a comprehensive support concept with local contribution, guaranteeing the most affordable operating costs and the highest level of autonomy.’
An evolving program
In the previous Swiss fighter aircraft procurement process, Saab offered Switzerland Gripen E under a joint procurement plan with Sweden. Saab says: ‘At the time, the Gripen E time plan was aligned to meet the Swiss requirement for IOC [initial operating capability] in 2021. When Switzerland decided to stop its acquisition of new fighters in 2014, the time plan was changed and adapted after Swedish and Brazilian requirements.’
When the first Gripen E was rolled out on May 18, 2016, the Swedish Air Force had still set an IOC target for 2021, with the lead squadron thought to be from F 7 wing at Såtenäs. The first aircraft was scheduled to be delivered to the Swedish Air Force in 2019. Saab says: ‘The Gripen E program is progressing according to plan, with production ongoing and customer deliveries starting this year. The latest technologies are being incorporated to provide air forces with operational capabilities designed to defeat the threats of today but also the future. Key milestones achieved during the past six months include flights with IRIS-T and Meteor, as well as the third Gripen E aircraft’s first flight.’
Manufacturing the Gripen E is an entirely new-build process. Sweden looked at a number of options, including the purchase of a completely different platform as Option A. Option B looked at taking the existing Gripen C/D airframe, the same engine, and then inserting future technology. Option C1 looked at a new Gripen airframe design, with a new engine and new, but proven, technology. The last option (C2) involved a new airframe, new engine and all-new technology. In the event they went for Option C1 — this is the Gripen E.
Certification test work is vastly reduced on the Gripen E because only 10 per cent of the computer software code relates to flight-critical elements. Some 90 per cent of the code is focused on tactical functionality. It means that Saab engineers can make swift tactical upgrades without the need to touch flight-critical avionics.
Much of the risk-reduction effort for the Gripen E has been undertaken in flight sciences laboratories and has also been live-flown on the so-called ‘Gripen Demo’, aircraft 39-7. The Gripen Demo is a JAS 39D that was rebuilt as a two-seat ‘Next Gen’ variant and first flew in this configuration in 2008. It has been progressively flown with many of the key elements of the new fighter. Gripen Demo has flown with the Selex Skyward-G infra-red search and track (IRST) sensor and various other elements of the new sensor-fuzed avionics package, plus the new General Electric F414-GE-39E engine. The aircraft has been in a period of upgrade ready to commence flight trials of the new large area cockpit display for the Gripen E shortly.
Saab’s three test aircraft are all now flying, and these come in addition to the 60 series-production examples on order for the Swedish Air Force. Sweden will not buy any two-seaters, however, Brazil plans its initial buy around 28 Gripen Es and eight two-seat Gripen Fs. Saab will also build one Brazilian ‘Echo’ test aircraft, which will be built at and will initially operate from Linköping.
Check! ✅ Another fantastic milestone for the Gripen E programme has been achieved. Today our third Gripen E test aircraft made its maiden flight in Linköping, Sweden pic.twitter.com/mNjUkUT49s
— Saab AB (@Saab) June 10, 2019