A visit to Gripen: Saab executives say "combat aircraft contest not over" - Broadsword by Ajai Shukla - Strategy. Economics. Defence.

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Monday 5 December 2011

A visit to Gripen: Saab executives say "combat aircraft contest not over"

A nice view of the weapons stations on the Gripen demonstrator

by Ajai Shukla
Linkoping, Sweden
A truncated version of this article was in Business Standard, 5th Dec 11

There are celebrations at Linkoping, the home of the Gripen NG fighter, which is barely two hours from Stockholm on one of Sweden’s ultra-friendly inter-city trains. On Tuesday, the Swiss government announced its selection of the Gripen-D fighter for the Swiss Air Force, rejecting the Eurofighter Typhoon and the Dassault Rafale.

“If confirmed, a win in Switzerland [according to the Swiss constitution, this might even require a national referendum] will provide a much-needed boost to Saab's status as a fighter manufacturer, after its Gripen was eliminated in another high-profile contest in India,” observed aviation magazine, Flight Global.

India has decided differently, short-listing the Typhoon and Rafale over the Gripen NG in New Delhi’s ongoing selection of 126 medium, multi-role combat aircraft (MMRCA). But, visiting Linkoping, Broadsword saw little despondency. With India’s defence ministry (MoD) uncomfortable with the idea of doubling its $10.5 billion allocation for those heavy fighters, Gripen is not yet ruling itself out of the MMRCA competition.

“It’s not over till it’s over,” says Eddy de la Motte, Head of Gripen Export. “We have been and are still confident that Gripen is the perfect match for the IAF as well as for the Indian defence and aviation industry.”

Eddy de la Motte also points out that Gripen has provided details of its Sea Gripen fighter (which is still being developed) in response to an Indian Navy’s enquiry.

Executives in Linkoping all insist that the Gripen NG --- the New Generation version of the current Gripen-D fighter --- would provide India with the fighter it needs for a far cheaper procurement and operating cost. They say it would be one-third the cost of the Typhoon and the Rafale, calculated on a “through-life” basis.

“Our experience of operating the Gripen is that it costs US $4000 per flight hour. This calculation is based on the experience of 150,000 hours flown,” says Peter Ringh, a senior executive with the Gripen programme.

I tour the Linkoping facility, which Sweden set up in 1930 after it was prevented from buying fighters because of the embargoes that preceded World War II. Over the next eight decades, a fierce focus on aerospace R&D --- 20% of Saab's aerospace revenues go back into research --- has driven the development of several world-beating aircraft at Linkoping. These include the Saab-21A in 1945 (the world’s first aircraft with an ejection seat); the Saab 29 Tunnan (the first aircraft with swept wings); and the Viggen, which the Indian Air Force had selected in the 1970s as a ground strike aircraft. But an angry Washington, seething after India’s nuclear experiment in Pokhran, vetoed the supply of the Viggen’s American-origin engines to India. The IAF bought the Jaguar instead.

“In 70 years in the aeronautics business, Saab has built more than 4000 aircraft. This includes 500 airliners, of which 450 are still operating,” says de la Motte.

Today, Linkoping is dedicated to the Gripen. Over 200 Gripens currently fly with five air forces --- Sweden, South Africa, Thailand, Czech Republic and Hungary --- and Switzerland will be the sixth. Gripen is also a leading contender (along with the Rafale) in the Brazilian Air Force’s purchase of medium fighters.

But India demanded a more capable MMRCA than the current Gripen-D; and Saab offered its futuristic Gripen NG fighter, of which only a single prototype exists. This is numbered 39-7; the first Gripen test aircraft was numbered 39-1… and this is the 7th test fighter).

Housed in a secluded hangar, the Gripen Demonstrator (as the first prototype of the Gripen NG is called) is discernibly bigger than the Gripen-D. The earlier Gripens are light, agile fighters, which can land and take off from 800-metre stretches of regular highway. A carefully inbuilt ability to be refuelled and rearmed within just 10 minutes of landing allow a small number of Gripen-Ds to fly as many sorties as a significantly larger number of heavier-maintenance fighters. But, along with low maintenance, India wanted a heavier fighter, with more weaponry and a longer range and endurance. Enter the Gripen NG.

“The NG is essentially a Mark III Gripen fighter. The Gripen A/B, a 12-tonne light fighter, was the Mark I. This went up to 14-tonnes in the Gripen C/D, which can be considered the Mark II. Our latest development, the Gripen NG, will be a 16.5 tonne medium fighter,” explains de la Motte.

That extra weight includes an additional tonne of fuel. Along with two 450-gallon fuel pods on the wings, this allows the Gripen NG to fly a staggering 4,100 kilometres. On internal fuel alone, it flies 2,500 kilometres. That exceeds the range of much bigger aircraft like the Typhoon.

Moving the undercarriage to the wings for enlarging the fuel tanks also created space for two additional hard points on which weapons are mounted. The Gripen NG now has ten stations, extraordinary for a 16-tonne fighter. Flying into combat, it would typically carry two IRIS-T air-to-air missiles on its wing tips, which can shoot down enemy aircraft 25 kilometres away; two Meteor beyond-visual-range (BVR) missiles, deadly accurate at ranges in excess of 100 kilometres; two fuel pods with 900 gallons of fuel; three GBU-12 precision-guided bombs for ground targets; and a reconnaissance pod.

To power all this weight, the Gripen-D’s General Electric F-404 engine is being replaced with the advanced F-414 engine, an upgrade that is common to India’s Tejas fighter. With thrust increased from 18,000 pounds to 22,000 pounds, the Gripen NG already super-cruises, or flies supersonic in economy mode.

The Gripen Demonstrator has demonstrated the capability to supercruise at Mach 1.2, and exceed Mach 1.6 on afterburner. Gripen engineers say that they have still to optimise the air intakes, which they expect will boost engine power by another 25%.

But the NG’s real strength is the cockpit, which is a fighter pilot's delight. Using Saab’s acknowledged data link capability, information is drawn from multiple sensors inside and outside the aircraft, including satellites. A terabyte-capacity computer screens out superfluous information, providing the pilot only the best input of each category. This allows him to concentrate on battle, rather than handling information.

“We do that by sensor fusion… using data fusion technology. This covers information coming in from radars, IRST, EW sensors, targeting pods, 3rd party sensors (including air-land-sea) and also information from the weapons,” says the Gripen test pilot who is conducting me around the fighter.

The pilot also reveals that the Gripen demonstrator is ready for being fitted with the Selex ES 05 Raven AESA radar. “This will be capable of electronically steering radar elements in specific directions. The current AESA radars have 70% coverage on each side. We will put that on a swashplate, which would give us 100% coverage, a big advantage in BVR. We can fire a missile and turn away without entering the enemy fighter’s weapons engagement zone, and yet be able to guide our missile to the hand-over point. This is called the F-Pole manoeuvre, which means that you fire and then turn away so that you are outside his radar pickup… but can still control the missile,” he explains.

The Gripen demonstrator will also have the ability to hand over the missile in mid-flight to another aircraft.

And finally, the pilot has satellite communications, permitting him to communicate across the globe. In a sensitive situation --- such as an attack that could start, or escalate a war, or even on a nuclear strike mission --- the pilot might need to take permission before launching weapons. This could be done over the satellite radio.

“During the Indian trials, when the Gripen successfully took off from Leh, the pilot called Linkoping on the satellite radio to say all is well,” said one of the Gripen NG pilots.


  1. If the price for procuring either Rafale or Typhoon exceeds the benchmark set up the Ministry of Defence and the price quoted is considered to be over the budget then it is likely that the IAF will settle for the Gripen or there would be split contract with twin engined fighter(Raf.or Typh.) getting a smaller share as compared to a larger chunk of the order going to SAAB.The Cost of 126+63 MMRCAs over a ten year time frame would be well over $20 billion.It is hoped that there are no disputes and deadlocks over cost and either the Rafale or Eurofighter is ultimately selected.

  2. @Ajai sir

    now I think your detractors will say you have been paid handsomely by Saab.

    By the way sometime back I saw image of Gripen (possibly the D) carrying 2 Taurus KEPD 350s. Dont you think a single engine fighter carrying such weapons make it a fantastic weapon at the hands of user, and should be selected hands down, alas IAF wont do it.


    Joydeep Ghosh

  3. @Ajai Shukla :

    The Gripen NG is costlier than the F-35.

    According to Swiss media , 22 fighters will cost $ 3.3 billion.

    That comes to a unit cost of $150 million.

    The F-35 on the other hand can be had for $133 million per unit.

    So why buy the Gripen ?

    Besides the Gripen NG is very similar to the Tejas Mk II. And the Tejas will probably cost us $60 million per unit. (considering the Tejas Mk I costs 180 crores or < $40 million )

  4. Gripen price is 1/3 of the price of Rafale or Typhoon, really? In Switzerland Gripen price was "only" 25% lower (3 $billions vs 4$billion) so 1/3 might be a bit over optimistic, once again a Swedish fairytale...
    Btw, according to the internal debate in Switzerland following this decision, the sentence "it's not over till it's over" could one day be true there as well.

  5. Nice article sir. Even though I have always rooted for Rafale for MRCA, I am also an admirer of Gripen. It packs such a large punch in a relatively small airframe and is truly an ingeneous piece of engineering.

  6. BTW I can't see why people have to be so upset about this article. Just because an a/c is no longer in MRCA race ( regardless of whatever Swedesh might hope for) doesn't mean that Indians will not be interested to read about it (I certainly am).

    Its not as if GOI and IAF will be pressurized to buy Gripen just because an article (even a good one like this) is published.

  7. Sir from what i could understand both grippen NG and Tejas mark 2 (0r the current one ) is going to use the same engine. So if that is the case why cant Tejas achive supercruise by modifying its air intake and other attachments ... Is it because of the fact that our Tejas has limitted scope of modifying the airframe and attachments ????

    Sit in this aspect can u do a comparison between the above two in terms of present a future development. I tried to google it with my little knowledge, but it was not convincing enough for me to believe.

  8. If you visit Dassault, they too would have enough points to make a similar article.
    We should stop simulating MMRCA competition in our brain and trust our pilots, that's all I have to say. After all they are the people who are actually going to fly the winner, not just-another-guy following competition on the internet.

  9. Gripen within its range and limitations of single engines is highly lucrative. Its cost of being 1/3 of Rafale/EFT obviously includes the life running cost.

    Now in India if Gripen is brought as MMRCA, then the questions will arise regarding the reasons for it not being technically down selected among the top two contenders. Then the things may be hanging forever like bofors. Moreover Gripen almost replicates the Tejas-Mk2, so how many varieties need to be handled.

  10. While otherwise an informative article on Gripen, I am not quite sure what is Ajayji playing at.

    After all, not a few weeks back, while enjoying my morning breakfast, I read a somewhat similar peice on F-35 flying for IAF. So what is it going to be sir..Lockheed or Saab!

    At the risk of sounding cynical Ajay, please tell me...are you planning peices on Rafale and Typhoon next?

  11. Gripen NG will be an amazing a/c!

    There are reasons why Saab believe they still have a chance:

    Not only because of the much lower life cycle costs than Rafale/Typhoon but also because the NG scored well in the IAF evaluation; in addition, some of the "weak points" identified were related to the immature NG. However Saab has made a lot of progress since the eval...

    Tejas is far behind the Gripen NG.

  12. anon @ 18.36 Do you have any source for your assertions about the order split or just shooting off the keyboard.
    And of course you must have computed the life cycle costs of a combined fleet of Raf/Typ and Gripen to say that would justify the split order. What if Rafael or Typhoon withdraw altogether from the race forcing a re-tender, there goes 10 years of the acquisition process, if you remember the 197 light heli saga you would know what I mean.

    Not to mention the addition to the logistical nightmare the IAF as it is faces with innumerable different types of aircrafts, something that the IAF is wisely thinking about winding down to just 3-4 different types i.e. LCA, MMRCA, FGFA and the Su-30 MKI. Let the best of Rafael or EF win and stop those squadrons from number plating.

    This is an all or nothing deal not only for the vendors but also for IAF.

  13. In the Christmas spirit, this is Part 1 of "The Ghosts of Aircraft Past"....

  14. Nice article. But the content is very poor and is more like an advertisement meant for Gripen.
    Some points that must clear certain things
    1. When we have the LCA, there is no need for Gripen
    2. Sea Gripen is a concept while our own Ocean Tejas (hihi, not meant just for seas but for the blue ocean itself) is ready to fly by next month.
    3. Gripen belongs to the light weight category. Just because they are allowed into MMRCA never means they should be selected. They cannot fulfill the criteria and the best aircraft must always be choosen. It's not wise to save money by purchasing cheap product. Then it's better to scrap the MMRCA deal itself and mass produce the LCA to about 500 in numbers. But this time Rafale seems to be the best aircraft. So if they are offering a good package, why not go for it?

  15. No point in buying this not yet developed Gripen NG. The LCA MK-II will match it exactly specs for specs. Why pay Gripen to develop that fighter when you should be investing in MK-II ! If the MK-II does not satisfy the IAF for "not being the fighter we will want 30 to 40 years from now", so wont the Gripen NG.

    I notice, the LCA MK-II, the big elephant is missing totally from this piece of yours.

  16. @ Brandy

    Half the reason for the confusion in the blogosphere about what constitutes the cost of an aircraft stems from these off-the-cuff calculations!

    Just for your information, if Country X buys 40 fighters for $4 billion, it does not necessarily mean that each of them costs $100 million. The deal could include several aspects besides the unit cost of the aircraft --- such as cost of spares, extra engines, maintenance facilities/service, training for pilots, supply of simulators, and dozens of other such components.

    So don't see the overall cost of the deal and jump to conclusions about the cost of an aircraft. To get an accurate idea, you would need to examine the contract.

    @ Arjun Rajkumar

    You are absolutely right. The air intakes of the Tejas are poorly designed and cannot be corrected at this stage without major redesign.

    When Saab designed the Gripen air passages, they catered for the possibility of a more powerful engine in the future, which would require a larger volume of air. So now, all that they need to do is (a) Expand the actual air intakes, which they have already done (see the photograph of the demonstrator that I posted and compare that with photos of the Gripen-D); and (b) Optimise the air flow by minor design changes, which they still need to do.

    That's the difference between a company that has designed fighters for 70 years; and ADA, which is still at a very early stage on the learning curve.

    @ Amol

    Are you really unaware of the difference between an opinion column and a news report?

    I threw my weight behind the F-35 in an opinion piece. I believed, and continue to believe, that the IAF should buy the F-35, not some over-priced, under-performing MMRCA like the Rafale or the Eurofighter.

    Given my view, I will still continue to travel to other aircraft manufacturers and do news reports on them. And, since all of them are worthy of favourable reporting, praise for an aircraft that they make or a process that they adopt, or a history that they have, does not mean that I have started backing their horse for the MMRCA race!

    The Gripen is a fine fighter. As is the Rafale and the Eurofighter. They are just not in the league of the Eurofighter. So... to answer your question... you might well see a report by me on the Rafale if I happen to be in Paris and have a day to spare.

    My friend, it is only in marriage that you pledge your loyalty to one woman and then cannot do a really close examination of another one.

    @ Anonymous 07:04

    It is hardly surprising that the LCA is missing from this article because the LCA was not there in Linkoping, when I visited to see the Gripen Demonstrator.

    There is no conflict between the LCA and the Gripen. In fact, Saab is the company that should be appointed to provide consultancy for the LCA, not EADS. It is Saab that has developed a highly successful single-engine light fighter, not EADS.

  17. Ajai Sir,

    You are right, it is Saab which developed a single-engine light fighter, not EADS. But therein lies the problem-why should Saab have any interests in helping someone else develop what would in effect be a rival to its own product? It can make twice the money exporting the Gripen to us (nothing wrong in that). This is the same reason why the South Koreans went with Lockheed Martin to develop their T-50 trainer/light strike aircraft. It's not a threat to the F-16 or JSF and in theory would have a great future so Lockheed would back it. That's not how Saab would see the LCA.

  18. Broadsword, your point to Brandy is absolutely correct and wise. On that basis, did SAAB elaborate on the concrete figures which led them to pretend that Gripen NG LCC would be one third of Rafale or Typhoon LCC? LCC is extremely complex to calculate and this kind of marketing assertion should be taken with great caution.

    You also mentionned that Typhoon and Rafale are under-performing MMRCAs. Maybe, but they are still the only ones fulfilling IAF MMRCA operational requirements! Gripen NG was tested and was not considered acceptable. We will see in some years what F-35 actually delivers, it remains to be seen if it is so much ahead on current 4,5+ Gen fighters (perhaps, perhaps not).

    1. IAF wanted a twin engine aircraft . But Gripen was single engine hence it was rejected

  19. My friend, it is only in marriage that you pledge your loyalty to one woman and then cannot do a really close examination of another one.

    Awesome! Lol.

  20. @AS:

    On use of Standard Units.

    Most people would prefer you used litres for fuel and kgs for weight. For pay load considerations, it is common to use weight of fuel instead of litres. But when we talk of range and endurance, litres are preferred.

    Similarly, in these parts one always used kgf for thrust, nowadays its Newtons.

    Gallons, whether Imperial or US, are not used by most people in the subcontinent.

    It would seem so much the more original if you did the math for conversions.

  21. Gripen purchase will kill LCA. What are the overwhelming advantages which are worth killing a domestic product. If there are not sufficient reasons, then suggesting a foreign purchase is equivalent to treason.

  22. In fact, Saab is the company that should be appointed to provide consultancy for the LCA, not EADS.

    You scored a bull's eye here!
    Forget the experience of single-engine aircraft, I doubt the EADS's will to actually help us with the LCA. They have been promising the moon in MMRCA. May be even Dassault is doing the same. But the way in which EADS has been marketing EF only consolidates their impression as pathological liars.

    Coming back to Saab, no doubt that they appear to be a staid firm. But again, why should they help us? I mean, what is the point in making a customer (with big pockets) self-reliant? It only translates to less orders in the future.

  23. @Ajai Shukla

    Regarding value of the deal. I guess the terms of Indian contract will at least be at par with the Swiss, if not more demanding. Going by that calculation, the cost of 126 Gripen aircraft for MMRCA would stand at whooping 19 billion USD!! And they say Rafale and EF costs way more than Gripen on any day. What would be a decent guess of MMRCA deal - 30-35 billion???
    Where are we heading?

    lol.. Instead, we should pay the Chinese some extortion money ourselves so that they don't attack us. That would be more economical.

  24. Since both Gripen NG and LCA mk2 use the same engine, we need info regarding their performance. Atleast the range with same weapons payload should match of both the aircrafts!.

  25. Sir,
    1)What about the article on FMBT ?

    2)Could you also write about the FGFA since you told it wouldnt be a true 5th gen fighter?

  26. The differences if any, between the Gripen and Tejas are basically due to two main factors. Firstly due to canards and secondly due to the unbroken company experience of design and mfg.

    Only a hyper intelligence can be a substitute for the active experience.

  27. i have no idea why ajai shukla cannot just get over with MMRCA. and youre just opposing the choices because you want to have a different opinion for sake of your analysis. whereas the fact is, you do know that F35 is a project whose successful ending is not known at all, even today - alright, its a great fighter and all, but as a great analyst why cant you see that india cannot commit itself to F35 as if it was a her girlfriend. likewise, you really do know that there is no frikin way on earth that gripen can outperform rafale or ef2000 in any way. swiss do not need a ef2000 for their needs are different than indias. india cannot go for gripen because her needs are way different. and now saab is just making it sound yada yada by sayind yada yada. please !

  28. Thanks to Ajai for his analysis. We all know that in about a week we will get a sense of who is the MMRCA winner.

  29. Sir,
    I personally feel that Gripen would have been a better choice than Rafael or Typhoon. Reasons,
    1) Gripen's engine is GE 414 which is same with Tejas. So no separate inventory, as we are buying GE 414 in hundreds.
    2) Life cycle cost of Gripen is much much less than Rafael or Typhoon. Are we really can afford those fancy planes ? (Life cycle cost of Gripen is only 2000 USD/Flying Hour at Sweden. Our costs will be lesser.)
    3) Swedish hardware is nevertheless very sophisticated and robust. (remeember Bofors.)
    4) Gripen is much easier to maintain than Rafael/Typhoon. 3 persons can change an engine within 45 minutes.
    5) If we want to buy 126 planes within the budgeted USD 10 Billion then Gripen is the only choice.
    6) Gripen NG. is having AESA. radar and can super-cruise.


    Ps. DasGupta.

  30. Quote:-

    Aviation week
    India May cancel fighter Competition.

    LANGKAWI, Malaysia — Victor Komardin, the deputy director of Russia’s arms export agency Rosoboronexport, contends that the two short-listed candidates for India’s Medium Multirole Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) competition have effectively ruled themselves out by putting too high a price on their fighters.

    India’s politicians told the local press earlier this year that the MMRCA contract was a $10 billion deal, but reports from India in recent weeks say the manufacturers of the two finalist aircraft, the Eurofighter Typhoon and Dassault Rafale, are each asking for around $20 billion to fulfill the 126-aircraft order, Komardin says.

    “Against the backdrop of the [financial] crisis [sweeping the world], it is hard to see how any government would allow such a waste of money, particularly when there are social problems” to deal with, Komardin says. “And there is no imminent threat to India’s [sovereignty]. My prediction is that this tender will be canceled.” Komardin spoke to Aviation Week on the sidelines of the LIMA Airshow in Langkawi, Malaysia.

    India and Russia are close partners on defense. Rosoboronexport’s MiG-35 was on the long list for India’s MMRCA competition. Komardin says the MiG-35 was withdrawn from the competition before the short list was decided. If India issues a new tender, it creates an opportunity for Russia and the U.S. to rejoin the competition.

  31. Will US allow smooth execution of this contract, given Gripen's heavy dependence on US tech?

  32. If India buys Gripen, then IAF can be renamed IIAF, Import from Importer Air Force. IAF keeps talking about imported component in Tejas. I guess those complaints do not apply to imports. Same old story.

  33. Gripen in the IAF will KILL the Tejas Mk.2. The IAF must never commit the blunder of importing Gripens....On the other hand, ADA must market the Tejas as a viable and cheaper alternative to Gripen all across the world.............Let Tejas be the Gripen KILLER.


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