Saab is to continue to offer upgrades to the Gripen C/D combat aircraft to maintain the type's capability out beyond the introduction into service of the latest-variant Gripen E, a company official disclosed on 10 March.
Speaking during a media tour of the company's Linköping production facility near Stockholm, Lennart Sindahl, head of the Aeronautics division at Saab, said that a series of enhancements for the Gripen C/D will be rolled out for those countries not intending to sign up for the Gripen E in the short- to medium-term, but that the overall package is not yet fully defined.
"We will continue to develop systems, such as the [Ericsson/BAE Systems] PS-05/A radar, to improve capability and to satisfy future customer needs," he said, adding: "The international users [of the Czech Republic, Hungary, South Africa, Thailand, and the UK Empire Test Pilots School] will be operating the C/D long after Sweden [has moved on to the Gripen E], and we need to look after them."
The Swedish Air Force (SwAF) is about to begin upgrading its JAS 39 Gripen C/D fleet with the MS 20 block upgrade, which will be the last before the Gripen E begins to enter service from 2018.
These block upgrades, which are rolled out about every three years, are designed to keep the Gripen at the forefront of capability without the need for in-depth modernisation work. As part of the MS 20 work, Weapon System 20 includes integration of the MBDA Meteor beyond-visual-range air-to-air missile and Boeing GBU-39 Small-Diameter Bomb; improved radar modes; a digital close air support capability; increased Link 16 connectivity; civil navigation enhancements; chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear (CBRN) protection for the pilot; night-capable operations using the SPK 39 Modular Reconnaissance Pod II; and a ground collision avoidance system (GCAS).
With MS 20 being the last planned for the Gripen C/D aircraft and with the Gripen E being introduced at MS 21 standard, Sindahl explained that the additional Gripen C/D upgrades may be classified as MS 20++, or the like.
Separate to its proposed Gripen C/D upgrade for international users, Saab is currently converting the last of the SwAF's remaining Gripen A/B airframes into C/D-standard aircraft. It expects to keep the Gripen C/D conversion line at Linköping open until the beginning of Gripen E production in about 2018/9 (the last new-build Gripen C rolled off the production in 2012, with the completion of deliveries to South Africa). Once this conversion work is complete, the SwAF's inventory will comprise 75 single-seat Gripen C and 25 twin-seat Gripen D platforms.
Having been awarded a Gripen E serial production contract from the Swedish government in December 2013, Saab is to convert 60 of the SwAF's Gripen C platforms into the latest-variant Gripen E. The air force's Gripen Ds will remain in service until the full fleet of Gripen Es has been delivered in about 2026, by which time the SwAF will have decided whether or not to utilise them as lead-in fighter trainers for the newer-variant platform.
However, with the Gripen C and Gripen E sharing little in terms of common structures and systems, the only items likely to be cross-decked will be the windscreen and canopy, the outer elevons, the ejection-seat, the internal gun and conveyor system, and some other ancillary equipment.
The plan is that the SwAF will be left with 60 Gripen E and no Gripen C aircraft (the 15 Gripen Cs from the current inventory not included in the conversion contract will be retired) by the time the work is complete halfway through the next decade. In reality, the dearth of common parts means there will in fact still be 60 nearly complete Gripen Cs left at the end of the process, which should not require much refurbishment work to turn them into exportable aircraft. Even so, company officials noted that there will come a time in around the 2019 timeframe when export opportunities will begin to focus squarely on the Gripen E.
According to Sindahl, Saab is currently in discussions with Malaysia and has received interest in the Gripen from Botswana. Other export hopes include Belgium, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Indonesia, Latvia, Lithuania, Peru, Portugal, and the Philippines (conversations with Canada in relation to an alternative to the Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter have come to nothing and been discontinued, Stindahl noted). He was unable to say at this time precisely which countries are interested in the Gripen C/D and which in the Gripen E. Saab is aiming to sell between 300 and 450 Gripen C/D/E aircraft over the next 20 years, which Sindahl said equates to approximately 10% of the accessible global market.
Saab said that, apart from being a highly capable aircraft, the Gripen's chief selling point is its affordability, in terms of development, acquisition, operation, and through-life sustainment. Speaking at the same media event, Lars Ydreskog, VP Head of Aero Operations, Aeronautics, said that the Gripen E cost 30-50% less to develop that did the Gripen C, and that the Gripen Next Generation (NG) demonstration programme had been completed at just 40% of the overall predicted cost. The head of the SwAF, Major General Micael Byden, added that the cost per flight hour of the Gripen C/D (including fuel) was a relatively low SEK48,000 (USD7,500), saying: "If the Gripen wasn't affordable, the Swedish Air Force would not be able to operate it."
Aside from further Gripen C/D upgrades and continued Gripen C/D/E export efforts, Saab officials disclosed that the first of three Gripen E prototypes is to make its maiden flight next year. The current twin-seat Gripen NG (company serial number 39-07) will continue system trials and the development of tactical systems, before being joined by the first single-seat Gripen E (39-08) in mid-2015. This aircraft will be used mainly for airframe and general flight control tests, with a second single-seat prototype (39-09) joining the programme as a tactical systems testbed in 2016. The third and final single-seat prototype (39-10) will fly as a production standard airframe in 2017.
The SwAF is set to begin receiving its Gripen E aircraft in 2018, as is the Swiss Air Force (subject to a national referendum on the subject). Brazil is due to receive the first its first aircraft within 48 months of the contract being signed. Negotiations are ongoing and are expected to be completed by the end of the year.