Saab has started fuselage assembly work on its first of three Gripen E test aircraft and revealed its detailed design for the future variant, which it says will beat the development and operational cost performance of the C-model fighter now flown by five air forces.
Decisions in favour of the Gripen E from the governments of Sweden, Switzerland and Brazil in recent months have prompted a surge of fresh interest in the development, says Saab deputy chief executive and head of aeronautics Lennart Sindahl. “Wherever we go, we see a good situation,” he says. The company is confident of a "yes" vote in a Swiss public referendum on 18 May over a planned 22-aircraft procurement, and also of closing out talks with Brazil for its 36-unit F-X2 deal by late this year.
“For almost 16 years we have been in discussion with Brazil, and one thing is clear – they want the Gripen,” Sindahl says. Ongoing talks following the nation’s December 2013 selection include aspects such as the requested development of a two-seat Gripen F – a model not required by either the Swedish or Swiss air forces. “Is it for training purposes, or for an advanced rear seat? We have started that discussion,” he adds.
Saab is adopting a stand-off strategy with regard to the Swiss Gripen Fund Law referendum, says campaign director Richard Smith. The Swiss air force project has a fixed price of just over Swfr3.1 billion ($3.6 billion), with Saab’s stake worth Swfr2.2 billion, and a weapons and sensors package valued at Swfr300 million. Offsets linked to the purchase will total Swfr2.5 billion, to be placed within 10 years of a deal being signed.
Switzerland’s Armasuisse procurement agency has so far approved offset proposals worth Swfr250 million, against an agreed pre-contract goal of Swfr300 million. Saab has recently contracted RUAG Aviation to manufacture electronic warfare pylons for installation on the wing leading edge, and this year also wants to select Swiss-based suppliers for the Gripen E’s rear fuselage, tail cone and airbrakes. “We’ve delivered a good offset package, and I believe we’ll get the majority we need,” says Smith.
Both Brazil and Switzerland are also being offered bridging solutions using Gripen C/Ds to be sourced from the Swedish air force. If advanced – and combined with the conversion of 60 of the service’s C-model aircraft to the E standard from later this decade – such arrangements could pose a challenge to Stockholm, says chief of staff Maj Gen Micael Byden. “There will be consequences, but we can handle them,” he adds.
The Swedish air force – which has so far received around 95 aircraft from an eventual 100 C/Ds converted from the A/B standard – also retains an aspiration to increase its eventual Gripen E fleet to 80, Byden says. It expects to keep all its D-model trainers until the last new fighters arrive around 2025 or 2026, he adds.
Saab has meanwhile started assembling fuselage parts for test aircraft 39-8 and static test article 39-83 at its Linköping site, and also is producing the first components for flight test asset 39-9.
First flight of the lead test aircraft is scheduled for the second half of 2015, with the single-seat asset to be used primarily for airframe and flight control system testing. The next example will be flown in the first half of 2016, and will support tactical systems work. Any required adaptations will be embodied with flight test instrumentation-equipped aircraft 39-10, which will join the test campaign in early 2017 to prove the final E-model configuration.
A first production example will follow close behind, with Saab targeting military type certification in early 2018, clearing the way for deliveries to Sweden and then Switzerland later the same year, in the MS21 software standard.
Once at full rate, the company aims to be able to deliver a new-build aircraft within 18 months of a contract award, or to convert existing airframes within a year.
Sweden’s remanufactured aircraft will retain almost none of the previous airframe, but will reuse parts of its fuel and air systems, plus its ejection seat, windshield, canopy and outer wing elevons.
While externally similar, the slightly larger E will have five through-fuselage, aluminium-lithium frames at the heart of its structure, which will support its airframe through to its inner-wing weapons pylons. Its tail section has been redesigned to accommodate the General Electric F414G-39E turbofan engine, and a new intake has been added at the base of the tail for a second environmental control system, which is needed to cool its Selex ES Raven ES-05 active electronically scanned array radar and electronic warfare equipment.
The Gripen’s air intake design has also been enlarged, and new landing gear installed. The latter includes a larger, single nose wheel and main gear which retracts into the wing, freeing fuselage space and enabling a 40% increase in internal fuel capacity. Two additional weapon stations have also been introduced beneath the fuselage.
Maximum take-off weight will be 16.5t, with the aircraft’s empty weight accounting for just 20% of this, at around 3t.
Referring to the aircraft’s sensor configuration, which also includes the Selex Skyward-G infrared search and track (IRST) turret and an advanced interrogation friend-or-foe suite, Saab's Sindahl says: “It will be the best in the world when we ship the first one in 2018. We have really picked the best things.”
Risk-reduction work is being conducted using a modified Gripen D demonstrator, now referred to as aircraft 39-7. This should be flown with the IRST sensor later this month, while a new version of its ES-05 radar (file image below) is currently being shipped to Linköping.
First flown in May 2008, the test platform has now completed around 300 flights totalling 260h, says Mats Lundberg, head of flight test and verification. It is also currently being used to test the Gripen E’s digital head-up display.
Lars Ydreskog, Saab’s head of aerospace operations, says the company’s use of a model-based design technique based around Dassault Systemes’ CATIA software is generating huge benefits for the E project. “You can show the operator how they will do something in 2023, before you’ve done anything in the development,” he notes. Combined with a reduced parts count – for example, a single machined part is now used to construct the radar frame, versus more than 20 on the C – and reduced lead times, the new version will be cheaper to produce. Compared against 2009 prices, “it’s going to be a 50% productivity increase”, Ydreskog says. The E-model demonstrator activity using aircraft 39-7 has also been performed for just 40% of its initial projected cost, he adds.
Saab has also driven increased efficiency through its experience in the Gripen’s conversion from the A/B to C/D standards, as well as through manufacturing parts for Airbus and Boeing commercial products, and design and production work for the Dassault-led Neuron unmanned combat air system technology demonstrator. The company’s aeronautics unit now has around 3,000 engineers, 800 of which were recruited in the last two to three years.
“We’re pushing the performance more than we’ve ever done, and pushing the costs down,” says Sindahl, while Ydreskog comments: “We are never satisfied – we are always challenging ourselves.” This experience is also now being drawn on by Saab with Boeing, with the companies working together in pursuit of the US Air Force’s potentially 350-aircraft T-X jet trainer requirement.
The increased use of design- and flight test-modelling for the Gripen E also means that while almost 4,000 sorties were required to prepare the C/D model, the three new test platforms should fly only a combined 1,200 times.
The global fleet of Gripens now operated by the Czech Republic, Hungary, South Africa, Sweden and Thailand has logged 203,000 flight hours, according to Saab. The Swedish air force lists its current per-hour operating cost with the type as being around SKr48,000 ($7,560).
In addition to its current favoured position in Brazil and Switzerland, Saab is also currently offering the Gripen to Malaysia, either for buy or lease, and believes Thailand could acquire a further batch to expand its 12-strong fleet. Further sales prospects listed by Sindahl include Belgium, Botswana, Estonia, Finland, Indonesia, Latvia, Lithuania, Peru, the Philippines, Portugal and Slovakia.
The company also expects the Czech Republic to sign a contract in April to extend its lease deal for 14 C/Ds until at least 2026, mirroring a decision approved by Hungary in 2011.
Longer term, the manufacturer has set a target to sell 350-400 units over the next 20 years. Pointing to the current level of international interest in the programme, Sindahl says: “I think 350-400 aircraft is really feasible”.