Thursday, April 2, 2015

Why I still think the Gripen is the best fighter for Canada.

It's not just because it looks cool...  Although it does.
A lot has happened in the three years (has it been that long?) since I started blogging about my preference for the Saab Gripen over the F-35 for Canada's CF-18 replacement.  Not the least of which was a total "reset" officially putting the Gripen in the running...  Only for Saab to drop out.

Looking back, dropping out may have been a wise move.  While Saab has quietly plugged away at Gripen E development, the JSF has continued to meet one controversy after another.

An engine fire, a no-show at its own international debut, a gun that does not shoot, bombs that will not fit, continued worries about costs, and reliability issues continue to make the F-35 the Kim Kardashian of the aviation world.

Meanwhile, Saab has continued to work on its JAS-39E (aka: Gripen NG).

I like what they did to the "Rumpfpylone".
The Gripen E takes many of the legacy Gripen criticisms head-on.  Redesigned fuel tanks and wings increase payload and range.  A new engine adds power and the ability to supercruise.  Detection capabilities are enhanced with a slick new rotating AESA radar, IRST system, and a cutting edge electronic warfare (EW) suite.  The addition of the MBDA Meteor missile is just icing on the cake.

When Saab dropped out of the Canadian fighter jet market, they did so stating that "the conditions were not yet ripe for us to act".  Indeed, the Gripen E was still early on in its development, with only the Gripen NG demonstrator built.  No finalized design, no confirmed sales.  

Things have changed.  

Sweden has committed to at least 60 new-build Gripen Es, with a good possibility of building more.  Switzerland was to be a customer, but a referendum pre-empted the buy of any new fighter.  Saab managed a huge victory in Brazil, however, coming ahead of both the Super Hornet and Rafale.  Brazil has ordered 36 Gripen E/Fs just to start, but could order well into the hundreds.  Brazil is also looking at co-developing a carrier-ready "Sea Gripen".  


Sea Gripen concept
The newest versions of the Gripen do not lose the original's focus on low cost, both in procurement and operations.  

Actual aircraft cost can be a nebulous affair, as jet fighters do not simply have a MRSP sticker placed on their windshield.  Orders are negotiated considering offset deals, exchange rates, training and support, and a slew of other items.  Typically, smaller orders tend to have higher unit costs, thanks to economies of scale.  Therefore, it makes little sense to compare unit costs to high volume clients like the USAF to just about anybody else.  To compare prices, the best we can often do is simply compare deals for similar aircraft amounts by different nations.

South Korea recently agreed to purchase 40 F-35As in a deal worth $7 billion US.  This works out to $175 million per F-35.  A similar deal with Brazil for 36 Gripens cost $5.4 billion, or $150 million per Gripen.  Not only are the Brazilian Gripens far cheaper (despite being a smaller order), but that deal includes some rather impressive offsets.  

These include:  

  • A substantial technology transfer package.
  • A 10-year agreement on industrial cooperation
  • Heavy input into the Gripen F development
  • The option to manufacture parts as well as provide final assembly for Brazilian Gripens.
In short, Saab has committed to improving Brazil's industrial base, providing jobs, and empowering Brazilian business.  All at a lower cost compared to the "affordable" F-35.  Not a bad deal.  If Brazil decides to move forward and order more Gripens, the price for each would likely drop substantially thanks to economies of scale.  


When compared to other contemporary jet fighters, the Gripen C/D simply far-and-away the cheapest to operate.  Its smaller size and light weight promote better fuel consumption, and its easily accessible components reduce manpower costs.  Again, this is in sharp contrast to the F-35 (and others).

Runways are a luxury, not a necessity for the Gripen.
No discussion about the Gripen would be complete without mentioning its ruggedness and versatility.  

Thanks to Sweden's Cold War defense strategy, the Gripen was designed to be operated from improvised airbases built around little more than a straight stretch of two-lane road.  Since Sweden had little chance of repelling a full blown Soviet invasion, the idea was to simply resort to guerrilla tactics early on.  

In order to meet this criteria, the Gripen was built with near STOL take-off and landing requirements.  Not only that, but it requires little more than 6 ground crew members operating out of a truck to get the aircraft refueled and rearmed within 10 minutes.

With a base north of the Arctic Circle line, the Gripen's cold weather performance is without question.



Lots of cool new tech, affordable, versatile, rugged...  Surely the Gripen has its issues, right?

The biggest criticism many have against the Gripen seems to be its single engine design.  Some dismiss the Gripen simply for this reason alone.  Many have criticized the F-35 for the same reason, stating that such a design is too risky.  Indeed, the dismal safety record of the CF-104 Starfighter (aka: "The Widowmaker") would certainly be enough to leave a bitter taste.

While the single-engine is a legitimate concern, it is simply one of many safety factors that should be considered.  An aircraft's safety record as a whole should be considered, not just the number of engines.  As I have discussed before, single-engine aircraft should not be automatically dismissed as death-traps.  Indeed, the the Gripen has a rather exemplary safety record (with not a single fatality) when compared against other modern fighters.

It really is that small.
Many criticize the Gripen based simply on its size.  While the Gripen is certainly smaller than many of its contemporaries, especially aircraft like the F-15 or Su-27, this does not automatically delegate it to the realm of second-rate fighters.

While the Gripen is close in size to the F-5 Freedom Fighter, that does not mean it matches the 60s era fighter capabilities.  The Gripen matches, or exceeds, the performance of the F-16 in most cases.  Its smaller size limits the Gripen's payload capability when compared to other multirole fighters, but that seems rather minor in the days where precision strikes are favored over carpet bombing.

For the most part, the Gripen's small size is not a bug, but a feature.  Smaller aircraft require less fuel, present a smaller IR and radar signature, and tend to be more affordable.


One of the silliest arguments against the Gripen is that it is not a "Fifth Generation fighter".  What makes this argument ridiculous is that there is no hard and fast rules as to what actually constitutes a "5th gen" aircraft.

The F-22 Raptor, being heralded as the first operational 5th generation fighter, differs from its older contemporary, the F-15 Eagle in that it is capable of supercruise, super-agility, stealth, a more advanced radar, and a host of other improvements.  Fair enough, but the F-22 is missing some advanced features found on older aircraft.  It currently goes without an IRST, a data-link capable of communicating with friendly forces, a helmet mounted display (HMD) or even the ability to fire the most advanced version of the Sidewinder missile.

The F-35, on the other hand, has the equivalent to an IRST, an advanced data-link, and a slew of other high-tech toys.  Yet is lacks the supercruise or super-manueverability of the F-22.

The Gripen E falls solidly in the "Fourth Generation Plus" category of fighters.  This category includes older fighters that have some decidedly "fifth generation" like capabilities.  These include powerful AESA radars, IRST systems, glass cockpits, data links, supercruise, and super-manueverability.  While not stealthy aircraft per se, they do offer a reduced radar cross-section and advanced electronic countermeasures (ECM).

Admit it, the digital came looks awesome.
At the very least, the Gripen E/F deserves serious consideration for replacing Canada's CF-18 Hornets.  It may not be as impressive as some aircraft, but there is no denying its versatility, affordability, and lethality (if needed).

The RCAF, the Department of National Defense, and the Government of Canada have some tough decisions to make over the next few years.  To put it simply, Canada cannot afford to even maintain our current military given our budget.  The choice will need to made to either; increase military spending by substantial amount, make drastic cuts to personnel and capability, or some combination of the two.  By adopting cheaper, simpler equipment like the Gripen, the DND could soften this blow considerably.

In short, the Gripen simply offers the most fighter aircraft for the money.  Not only that, but it offers an extreme amount of versatility and capability that would be hard to find at any price.

Pros:

  • Affordable to procure and to operate.
  • Saab offers very competitive offset packages to buyers.
  • Capable of supercruise.
  • Cutting edge avionics, including data link, HMD, AESA, IRST, and advanced ECM.
  • Near STOL-like runway requirements.
  • Tiny logistic footprint.

Cons:  

  • Small size limits its payload.
  • Single-engine design seen as unsafe by some.
  • Not a true "Fifth Generation" stealthy design.  




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