Monday, 6 May 2013

Apples vs. Oranges, Part II: Variants.

"But the Gripen NG is just a paper airplane!"
One of my pet peeves when reading many Gripen critiques is that the Gripen E/F (nee NG) is a "paper airplane" that "doesn't even exist off a drawing board".  In a way, this is partially true, as no Gripen E or F has rolled off the assembly line after having been built from scratch.  The implication here is that a JAS-39E is entirely theoretical, with years of design work and testing ahead of it before it would be operational.  This is overstating things.

The Gripen E/F is a variant of the existing JAS-39 Gripen.  Nothing more.  Very little is actually changed on the airframe itself.  Externally, the only visible changes are a slightly modified wing, additional weapon pylons, repositioned main landing gear, and the addition of a IRST sensor at the base of the canopy.

It is the parts you can't see that undergo most of the changes.  The most important change is the switch to the GE F414G engine for additional power.  Repositioning the main landing gear frees up space for an additional 40% more fuel.  The rest is mainly modernized avionics and other systems.

Gripen A cockpit.
Gripen C cockpit. 
Gripen E cockpit.

The cockpit shows a continued evolution as well.  Much like the F-35, Saab plans to remove the traditional heads-up-display (HUD) in favor of a helmet mounted display (HMD).  Unlike the F-35, however, the Gripen's HMD has already been in service for the last 5 years.

The Gripen F Demonstrator:  Flying now.
To further illustrate the changes made for the "NG" Gripen, Saab has modified an existing JAS-39D into the "Gripen F Demonstrator".  This demonstrator features many of the new additions planned for the Gripen E/F models, including the upgraded engine, additional fuel, and AESA radar.

The Gripen E/Fs are not a "fresh off the drawing board" aircraft.  In fact, Sweden has made plans to upgrade its existing Gripen fleet to the E/F standard, much the same as Canada upgraded its CF-18 fleet a few years ago.

F-35 variant comparison.

The changes made to the Gripen to upgrade it to E/F standard are indeed less extensive than the differences between F-35 variants.  The F-35C uses completely different wings and tails, while much of the F-35B's fueselage is unique.  It is highly unlikely that a F-35A would be converted to the F-35B standard, and vise-versa.  The Gripen E/F upgrades are also nowhere near that of the differences between the F/A-18C/D Hornet and the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet, which is almost an entirely different aircraft.

Hornet vs Super Hornet.

In effect, almost all of the aircraft being marketed as Canada's next fighter are at similar stages as the Gripen E/F.  The F-35A is still in testing, with years of development still to go.  The "Tranche 3" Eurofighter Typhoon is just beginning production, and the "International Roadmap" (aka Block 3) Super Hornet has yet to be flown.

So, yes.  The Gripen E/F technically does not exist yet as a ready-for-combat fighter.  Then again, neither does the Tranche 3 Typhoon, F-35, or the "International Roadmap" Super Hornet.  The upgrades for the Gripen E/F are relatively modest however, and present little risk.

So is the Gripen E/F a "paper airplane"?  It is in this video.


  1. The F-35 will remain a toothless paper plane until USAF has tested and approved it somewhere around 2018-19 (?) I'm quite sure that the F-35 eventually will mature as an amazing striker, and thus should work pretty well as a deterrent.
    I'm not however so sure about its survivability when returning from the strike. As its stealth protection is designed to be optimal from a forward-down view, how hard can it be for scrambled fighters to lock a dozen or so heat seekers on the worlds most powerful jet engine in a single engine airplane, especially when it has to go full AB to be able to get away ?

    Lots of talk about the Super Hornet, but did you know that its basic design goes way back, all the way to early 1965. It will soon celebrate its 50th birthday! As an aerodynamically comparison: look at the racers in the Formula 1 circus. They change their design for every new season, not just because they can, but because they simply have to to stay competitive...

  2. No No Gripen is Computer-aided engineering (CAE), but Viggen was the paper plane..... :)

  3. Lots of talk about the Super Hornet, but did you know that its basic design goes way back, all the way to early 1965. It will soon celebrate its 50th birthday!

    Gripen design goes back to 1982 when it was officially approved in June of that year by the FMV.

    1. I do believe I've mentioned that here.

      Airframes simply last longer nowadays. The "shelf life" for a 60s fighter design was usually only a few years until it was made obsolete. Of course, much what we now know about aerodynamics was still being discovered back then.

  4. An FOI paper published in August 2012 has a section titled "The importance of fifth-generation aircraft and stealth technology for Swedish defense and security ( Betydelsen av femte generationens flyg- och smygteknik for svensk forsvars- och sakerhetspolitik in Swedish ) " which argues

    " In the future, there are strong reasons for, in simulators with sharp technical details of the fifth-generation performance, eval*uate the performance of the upgraded Gripen system capable of performing their duties in respect of the specified threats as dimensions defense today. No matter how well the system is expected to operate so there is reason to believe that the tactical behavior that our pilots train in today needs to change to address the new threats that arise when the fifth-generation aircraft constituting all or part of an attacker's fleet. Note that these aircraft can detect Gripen system at considerably greater distances than individual Gripens can detect them. Moreover, they have better maneuverability, better sensor and at least equivalent weapons.

    1. Indeed, stealth is likely to play a part in the future. But how big of a part? Jets like the PAK FA and J-20 are stealthy, but don't seem to compromise performance to do so.

      Realistically, widespread proliferation of potentially hostile stealth jets won't happen until at least the 2030s. Even then, jets like the PAK-FA and J-20 will likely not be the backbone of an enemy air force. More likely, it will be jets like the Su-35 and J-10B, and current stealth technology will be countered by more sophisticated radar systems, like passive radar.

    2. I read the article too. It mainly states that stealth has a role to play in the future and that Sweden should be prepared for it. I'm not sure you should use citation marks when your translation is, I'm sorry to say, a little shaky. The fifth generation aircraft the article talks about as having better maneuverability and stealth is the PAK FA and F-22. The text is about how the Flygvapnet should adapt their tactics to effectively combat threats like the PAK FA, or any stealth plane that can detect Gripen before Gripen detects stealth plane. The article also says that these tactics are relevant for when the majority of the enemy's aircraft are stealth aircraft. Like Doug, I believe that future is rather distant. The Russian airforce will mainly consist of SU-35 for the next decade or two (personally I think the SU-35 is far more deadly and frightening than the F-35).

      The article is rather harsh on the JSF saying that "It is clear that the F-35 can't compete with the best Russian aircraft in fighter characteristics. The airplane has limited internal stores, limited maneuverability and is not capable of super-cruise. Many things indicate that the F-35 is solely focused on stealth which may render the airplane vulnerable in the future when better sensors increase the probability of detection".

      Ergo, the FOI (Swedish Defense Research Agency) are actually quite skeptical on the F-35 and the seem to think that it has sacrificed everything else for it's stealth capability (which is not in the same league as F-22 and B2).

      The article does not hype stealth at all. It merely says that stealth is a new factor that need to be accounted for. And it states that the F-22 is indeed a formidable aircraft, as will the PAK FA likely be.

      Their webpage in English

      The article in Swedish, page 71

  5. Doug, can you tell us how a Gripen NG compares to Canada's current CF-18s? Can a JAS-39E perform as well or better than a CF-18?

    1. I've been meaning to get around to that. The Gripen E specs, for the most part, meet or exceed the current CF-18's capabilities.

  6. I think the Gripen NG is more than just another version of the Saab Gripen and less than a completely new airplane. There is going to be some development work to be done. But, the development should take less than 5 years until it is completed. This is an advantage and a disadvantage at the same time. It could give Canada the opportunity to contribute to the development and production of the Gripen NG. However, the costs and - limited - risks of development would have to be shared. So this is no purchase off the shelf.

  7. Doug, regarding the Common, Cousin and Unique percentages of parts used in the F-35 family:
    LM have since the misty beginning claimed that the A, B and C version of the F-35 will save costs by as far as possible use the exactly same parts in all versions.
    But looking at that picture, it seems that the definition for the "Common" parts category is a part that is used in 2 out of 3 of the strikers, as it's very hard to find the same green color in exactly the same place in the drawings.
    So question is: What’s the percentage of the REALLY Common parts that is used in all three versions?