Thursday, 3 May 2012

Why the Saab Gripen NG is right for Canada

The Saab Gripen NG, capable and affordable.
 If we consider the F-35 not suitable for Canada's needs, what is the alternative?  Despite the argument to the contrary, there are plenty of options available.  Of course, each of those options offers different capability, cost, and political considerations.

Before announcing its selection of the Lockheed F-35, the Canadian powers-that-be briefly considered other fighter designs.  Whether they were given serious consideration or merely paid lip service is for others to debate.  One of those fighter designs was the Swedish Saab JAS 39 Gripen (Griffon) NG.

Is the Saab Gripen right for Canada?  Not really...  But the Gripen NG (the NG stands for "Next Generation") is.

Earlier versions of the Gripen flown by the Swedish Air Force.
Designed during the last throes of the Cold War to replace Sweden's aging Draken and Viggen fighters, the Gripen was designed from the outset to be an affordable, easily maintained, easily deployed, multi-role fighter capable of   "JAS", which stands for Jakt (air-to-air), Attack (air-to-surface), and Spaning (reconnaissance).  Despite the availability of off-the-shelf multi-role fighters like the F-16 and MiG-29, Sweden made the choice to keep its proud tradition of self-reliance and neutrality.  It also chose to enter the international fighter sales market, as many countries looked to replace their aging Cold War eqiupment.

Although a perfect fit for Sweden, early JAS 39A/B versions of the Gripen proved to be ill suited for other country's needs.  Short ranged, with no mid-air refueling capability, and a limited weapon selection made it unpopular compared to other heavily marketed fighters.  Later versions, the JAS 39C/D allowed mid-air refueling and ability to mount any NATO weapon or electronics.

Saab Gripen NG technology demonstrator.
No longer content to play second fiddle to other manufacturers, in 2009, Saab introduced a new technology demonstrator.  Addressing the concerns of previous versions of the Gripen, this version was equipped with a more powerful engine, increased fuel capacity, AESA radar, helmet mounted optics, and an increased weapon payload.  The Gipen NG appears to be a formidable fighter, but has the unwelcome challenge of facing off against the massive marketing and political might promoting sales of the Lockheed F-35.

Is it fast?

The GE414 engine, as used in the Gripen NG and F/A-18
With an upgraded engine producing 20% more power than previous versions, the Saab Gripen NG will easily match previous versions' top speed of mach 2.  This makes it faster than Canada's current CF-18 (mach 1.8), and way faster than the F-35 (mach 1.6).  Although not as fast as fighters like the Su-35 or F-22, the Gripen should definitely be considered fast enough.  

Rendering of a Gripen carrying two massive belly tanks, four cruise missiles,  infrared tracking pod, two Meteor medium range missiles and two IRIS-T short range missiles.
Again, top speed is of little use if it can only be obtained for short periods of time.  Interception duties require a marathon runner, not a sprinter.  With that new, more powerful engine, the Gripen NG has been proven to supercruise, capable of achieving mach 1.2 with air-to-air missiles needed for interception duties.  

Saab has also developed massive 450 gallon external fuel tanks extending its range even further.  This gives the Gripen a combat radius of 1,300km as opposed to the F-35's 1,100km.  The F-35 has the option of external tanks, but again, this spoils its stealth.

All said, the Gripen would be much more suitable for interception duties than the F-35.  It would be able to reach its target much faster, and at a longer range.

Is it Fierce?

Gripen with air-to-air missiles.
In a word:  Yup.

Despite lacking a stealth design, the Gripen does have a rather small frontal radar cross section (RCS) compared to Canada's current CF-18.  Its use of  non radar reflective materials combined with its smaller size give it a RCS of 1/5th the size of the CF-18.  This doesn't even come close to the F-35 however, but the F-35 needs to make some serious trade-offs for its stealth, like internal weapon storage, higher maintenance, etc.

The Gripen NG's AESA radar

Enemy detection shouldn't be a problem for the Gripen NG, equipped with an AESA radar, infrared search and track system (IRST), forward looking infrared (FLIR), and a helmet mounted display similar to the F-35's.
The Gripen's IR OTIS IRST (infrared search and track) visible  at the base of the canopy.  

What about the F-35's data link?  Well...  Turns out Saab actually pioneered the use of data links in the 60's with the Saab Draken.  Newer Saab jets have continued to update its use, and currently the Saab Gripen is compatible with the LINK 16 standard used in NATO.  Information can be instantly exchanged between the Gripen and all friendly units.

Enemy detection shouldn't be a problem, but what about bite?  While not in the same league as the super-expensive F-22, the Gripen should be able to handle itself in combat.  Being a small, lightweight fighter with plenty of power, canard-delta configuration and a low wing loading, the Gripen is more than capable in a tight turning dogfight.  Modern air combat strategy prefers to stay away from dog-fighting however.  Emphasis is placed on using powerful radars and accuarate, long range missiles to engage the enemy from a safe distance.

Gripen weapon selection.
If modern air combat dictates using advanced, long range missiles, then logic dictates we should equip the very best.  Oddly enough, the F-35 doesn't.  Designed around the American AMRAAM medium range missiles, the F-35 doesn't have much "wiggle room" for mounting larger, longer range missiles.  The Gripen, which mounts its missiles externally, doesn't have this problem,  Its compatible with just about any weapon or bomb used by NATO countries, and should continue to be so.

The MBDA Meteor Air-to-air missile.  We want this.  Trust me.
Possibly the most advanced air-to-air missile available in the western armory is the MBDA Meteor BVR (beyond visual range) air-to-air radar guided missile.  Not only does it use modern active radar guidance ike the AMRAAM, but it swaps out the traditional solid rocket engine for a ramjet.  This allows it to alter its speed, allowing it to increase its range and offer more flexibility.  Best of all, since the Meteor is such a new design, there is plenty of room for further advancement.  Currently, the Meteor is cleared for use on the Gripen, Typhoon, and Rafale.  There was discussion about a modified version to work the F-35, but this has been put on hold.  A proposed ramjet powered AMRAAM successor, the Joint Dual Role Air Dominance Missile (JDRADM) is expected to be cancelled in the 2013 U.S. Defense budget, leaving the Meteor as the most advanced NATO compatible missile.

Weapon options for the Gripen NG.
Capable of carrying anything from a short range infrared missile to a standoff range cruise missile, with a 27mm cannon as backup, the Gripen offers similar firepower to the F-35.   Unlike the F-35, the Gripen offers much more flexibility and the ability to mount cutting edge current or future weapons like the Meteor.  

Is it Flexible?

Yes.  Ridiculously so.

Throughout the 20th century, Swedish military doctrine was one of self reliance, deterrence, and peacekeeping.  Knowing that it would stand little chance of fending off a superpower like the nearby Soviet Union, all Swedish military units were expected to perform while the country was under active occupation.  This meant that that Swedish aircraft were designed to operate, if need be, without the luxury of a proper airbase.

Airbase or cul-de-sac?  Yes.
The Saab Gripen can take off and land on 800 meters of two lane, snow covered highway.  It can be serviced from a transport truck.  Within ten minutes, five recruits and one technician can get it refueled, rearmed, and ready to fly again.  This means that a Canadian Gripen would be able to land at any Canadian airbase, even during lousy weather.  In a pinch, a Gripen could land at small civilian airports throughout the country.  In a real pinch, Ontario's 401 or a stretch of the Trans-Canada Highway would be enough.

Sweden, like Canada get's it fair share of snow.  No problem for the Gripen.
For foreign deployments as part of NATO peacekeeping forces, a group of ten Gripens can be supported by single C-130 Hercules, with room to spare in the Herc.

The Gripen doesn't just promise to be low maintenance, it is low maintenance.  Flown for years by Sweden, South Africa, Czechoslovakia, and other countries, the Gripen has a proven track record for being a safe, economical platform.  The Gripen NG uses the same engine as the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet, making it a well proven and well supported engine.

Is it frugal?

During the last Canadian federal election, the cost of 65 F-35A Gripens was reported to be $9 billion.  This has since been scrutinized and clarified to anywhere between $13 biillion to $30 billion.  The truth is, we don't know how expensive the F-35A will be, and probably won't until it has finished development.

What we do know, is that Saab has offered to sell 65 Gripen NGs to Canada, with 40 years worth of maintenance costs for under $6 billion. Saab has also offered that, if Canada wishes, Gripen production could take place in Canada under contract with Bombardier.

The Canadair CF-5.  American design, built in Canada, then sold to other countries.
This offer has some historic significance for Canada.  In 1968, the RCAF began acquiring copies of the Northrop designed CF-5.  Designed as a low cost, low maintenance fighter (sound familiar?), the F-5 was intended for air forces that didn't have the budget for the cutting edge fighters of the day.  Instead of merely purchasing them, Canadian CF-5s were built by Canadair under license.  These Canadian made F-5s weren't strictly purchased by RCAF either.  Canadian CF-5s were purchased by Turkey, Greece, Venezuela, Botswana, and the Netherlands.

Instead of the mere promise of spread out military contracts building minor components, Canada would be find itself back in the fighter business.  Fielding a fighter made on Canadian soil, by Canadians would be a great source of national pride, regardless of where the fighter was designed.  Better still, if Saab is successful at marketing the Gripen to other countries, those fighters may just come off a Canadian assembly line, just like the CF-5 did years ago.

What to buy with the money saved:  The stealthy X-47A UCAV.

Even if Saab's promise of $6 billion turns out to be off, it would still be highly unlikely that a Gripen purchase would even come close to the price of an equal F-35A purchase.   With the money it saves, Canada could buy more than the minimum 65 jets required, perhaps even enough to replace the aging CT-114 Tutors used by a certain Canadian air acrobatics team.

If stealth is such a "must have" for certain missions, perhaps the money saved by procuring the Gripen over the F-35 would be wisely spent on stealthy unmanned combat air vehicle (UCAV) like the Northrup X-47A (which uses a Pratt & Whitney Canada engine) or the Dassault nEUROn, which was 25% developed by Saab.  UCAVs make much more sense for deployment to the high threat environments stealth designs are meant to counter.  Also, since they are much cheaper and require less time to develop, they can be more easily replaced as detection technology advances.


Some assembly may be required:  The Ikea jokes would be everywhere!
Faster than the F-35, more fierce, more flexible, more frugal, and the option of building our own Gripens on our own soil.  Heck, we might even convince Saab to call the Canadian made Gripens Arrow IIs instead.  Sure, we might disappoint the American military industrial complex, and a few DND higher-ups may lose their chance at a future high paying lobbyist job for Lockheed Martin, but that seems like a small price to pay.  

In the end, we should be looking at getting the best fighter investment for our money.  If money was no object, we would have convinced the U.S. to sell us F-22s.  If all we need are new planes to fly, we can strap machine-guns to Cessnas.  What Canada needs is "bang-for-the-buck".  The Saab Gripen NG is the clear choice.


  1. A very nice summary. I am in favor of the Gripen (I am Swedish). However politics play a significant role and the US will put some serious pressure towards the F-35 for Canada. Is there any real chance Canada will stray away from the F-35? Thanks again for the info.

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  3. What Gripen has on it's competitiors other than it's performance records paired with the very competitive price is that it can land and take off from almost anywhere. The range is way to short to cover a massive country like Canada, but since it would also be expensive to keep proper airbases scattered everywhere for servicing the F35, Gripen would be a great alternative. Sadly Canada will probably never stop buying US planes exclusively due to the political pressure.

  4. Thanks for your comments!

    With the F-35 back in the news, its really time to start looking at smarter, cheaper alternatives.

  5. The Gripen makes so much sense for Canada that it can't possibly be chosen. For the price of 65 F-35's, we could get 100 Gripens and station them all around the country, including the arctic, instead of just Alberta and Quebec.

    Add to that the option of actually producing the planes in Canada, nothing else makes sense.

    Sure, koolaid drinkers like to point to F-35's stealth...which is, at best, limited. First, it is never intended as a first strike aircraft. It is meant to go in after the air has been cleared by F-22's and the AA missiles have been decimated by B-2's, drones and cruise missiles.

    The stealth of the F-35 is frontal aspect only...meaning at any angle off of the nose, the stealth capabilities are severely reduced. L-band radar can negate F-35 stealth capabilities and though it isn't accurate enough to track directly to a moving target, it is accurate enough to get missiles close, where shorter wavelength radar, ir and visual guidance can take over and fine tune the attack.

    Remember when the F-4 didn't need guns because the technology of the missiles is so good, it won't even have to see a target to kill it? It took a couple of years to get guns put back on every US fighter.

    Technological advantages never last forever. For every advantage, a counter has always come along. Stealth is no different.

    The F-35 won't be anything resembling stealthy in another few years, much less over the lifetime of the why bother? Instead, something like the Gripen, which is much more versatile right out of the box and can be endlessly upgraded with modern electronics which will be able to counter any stealth out there.

  6. My Brazil got a loooott!!!!!!!!!!!!

  7. With total industrial opportunities in Canada expected to exceed $11 billion, the F-35 will deliver high-skill, high technology jobs throughout Canada for decades to come. Doesn’t this count for anything?

    1. Absolutely!

      But that number is far from guaranteed. The the way the JSF program works is that Canadian companies only get to bid on F-35 related contracts. Lockheed Martin can divvy up those contracts however it sees fit. If another company places a lower bid, they win it. If another country needs a little more "convincing" than Lockheed can choose them, regardless of price.

      Japan has already been awarded substantial F-35 work, even though they were not a JSF "partner" nation like Canada. Ditto for S. Korea if they go ahead with their F-35 purchase. Isreal has seen far greater gains from the F-35 than investment, even though it is only a "Security Cooperative Participant" ($20 million vs. Canada's $160 million). While Canada is building simple stuff like tail planes and other widgets, Isreal is building big-ticket items like the helmet mounted display and electronic warfare packages. Isreal also gets its own variant, the F-35I.

      Mind you, the entire Israeli F-35 purchase will be covered under US military aid subsidy, so there's that.

  8. The Gripen was designed to operate in Sweden with it's expansive northern territories above the arctic circle, snow, cold and sometimes appalling weather. The same scenario as Canada's! It definitely would be the logical and economical choice, with the new JAS-39E version very NATO compatible.