Wednesday, 15 May 2013

Gripen for America? Wait... What?

Hold on.  Stay with me...

I am in no way suggesting that the USAF, USN, and USMC abandon the JSF in favor of the Saab Gripen.  No way that is ever going to happen, ever.  The USA has too much invested in the F-35 project at this point and it is simply "too big to fail".  The idea of Boeing and Lockheed, two of the US's largest defense contractors (and lobbyists) being passed up in favor of a foreign maker's design is simply too unrealistic.

But the JSF isn't the only military aircraft program on the go for the USA right now...

Recently celebrating 50 years as the USAF's supersonic trainer, the Northrop T-38 "Talon" has served as a trainer, chase plane, simulated aggressor, and even a stint in the USAF Thunderbirds demonstration team.  It's been used by the USAF, USN, and even NASA.  Based on the simple and low cost F-5 "Freedom Fighter", the T-38 certainly has had a long and successful run.

The T-38's time is coming to an end however, long out of production, it is set for replacement in the 2020 timeframe.  The Pentagon has initiated the early stages of the "T-X" program.  Early favorites are the BAE Hawk, KAI T-50 Golden Eagle, and Alenia Aeronautica's T-100.  The requirements call for a "high performance, two-seat military jet trainer aircraft" capable of:
...sustained high-G operations, air-refueling, night vision imaging systems operations, air-to-air intercepts, and data-link operations.
Ultimately, the T-38 replacement's job will be to prepare pilots for the Super Hornet, F-35, F-22, the upcoming F/A-XX, as well as future fighters for decades to come.  Needless to say, lower operating cost, high sortie rate, and commonality with existing US systems would certainly be a bonus as well.   Starting to sound familiar?

Two seat, common parts, cheap to run, high sortie rate...

The Saab Gripen was developed with much of the F-5's design philosophy; an affordable, "no frills" fighter aircraft requiring minimal maintenance.  The "NG" adds plenty of high tech (and likely expensive) gizmos bringing it to modern age, but the airframe remains mostly the same.  A two-seat JAS 39F, without IRST, weapon systems, and other "high-dollar" options could prove to be a suitable replacement for the T-38.

Gripen F cockpit.
F-35 cockpit.
The proposed Gripen E/F cockpit has many similarities with the F-35 cockpit, both forgo the traditional HUD (heads up display) in favor of a helmet mounted display.  Both move away from traditional dials and MFDs (multi-functional display) and instead place information on a large customizable touchscreen.  Both utilize "sensor fusion" and data-link capability.

As I have mentioned before, the Gripen F also utilizes the GE414 engine as used in the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet.  The possibility of carrier compatibility for the Gripen should also be considered a definite advantage for training USN and USMC pilots.

The USAF is also looking for a trainer that will allow an easier transition to the supercruising, high performance (and high flying cost) F-22.  The current T-38 is woefully inadequate, resulting in increased training hours needed for F-22 transition.  Needless to say, this isn't financially desirable. 
The Gripen is also well suited to the light attack role, as well as being an excellent choice for an "Aggressor" model to simulate enemy combatants.  It's similarities to the Chinese J-10 are almost uncanny.  Current aggressor aircraft are also simply not enough challenge for the F-22 and are likened to "clubbing baby seals".  This forces F-22s to pit against each other in order to be sufficiently challenged, again driving up costs.  A Gripen aggressor, especially fitted with AESA radar and IRST, would likely bridge this gap somewhat.  The F-22 is still likely the only viable aggressor suitable to simulate a PAK FA or J-20, however.

It could happen...  Maybe...
I believe that the Gripen E/F is the best choice for Canada, partly because Saab has offered to build them in Canada.  While 65-80 jets certainly doesn't seem like a large production run, that production line could easily be kept open for years with further export sales. A decontented Gripen F should be heavily marketed towards the USA as a replacement for the T-38.  With numbers approaching 1000, the T-X program would be highly worth it.  Some might say that the USA would never "buy Swedish-Canadian" after stepping away from the JSF program, but Canada has certainly bought enough American made military hardware in the past, present, and future, to render this argument moot.

Would a "Griffon Trainer"be a suitable T-38 replacement?  Only the Pentagon could say for sure, but I believe it would.  Better still if Canada could help them procure it.

[NOTE:  Since publishing this post, I came across this article, stating that Saab is considering a Gripen based trainer for the T-X competition.]


  1. Highly doubtful as the Gripen is a competitor to American fighters on the foreign market. Most likely the T-50 would win over the Gripen due to the closer relations with South Korea and Lockheed Martin being involved in the project. The F/A-50 is also seen as a light fighter and a lower threat to American contracts overseas.

    Lockheed Martin being involved in the development of the T-50 is probably the biggest factor here, as they have a great deal of power over the Pentagon and Congress.

    Additionally, the USAF seems to have a phobia against canards. It has been a long time since they have had any canard fighters/trainers.

    1. True, the Gripen would be a long shot, for sure.

      I'm not sure if a Lockheed Martin connection is a real advantage for the T-50 however; neither the LCS, F-35, or F-22 programs have gone smoothly. There may be a deal of "Lockheed fatigue" going on in the Pentagon right now.

      With Lockheed backing the T-50, Northrop backing the Hawk, and General Dynamics backing the T-100, it makes you wonder if Boeing is looking for a partner... Although they may just go with a "clean sheet" design.

    2. I believe that LM still has a good position thanks to its lobbying efforts. A lot of Pentagon staff and Generals will also need high paying jobs after retiring from the military.

      I do agree that the LCS, F-35 and F-22 will have some impact on future procurements. However, I think that impact will be more in the form of the Pentagon not having the stomach to back up a new design. Especially when the market is flooded with recent aircraft like the T-50, upgraded Hawk, and the M-346.

      I'm actually surprised that Boeing didn't partner with BAe on offering a Hawk version, as they collaborated in the development of the T-45 Goshawk for the USN.

      On a side note: Any possibility of an article in the future about the possible market for second-hand Gripens? (A & B versions)

    3. I'm not sure what the market would be for used Gripens...

      South Africa seems to have more Gripens than pilots, and the leased Czech Gripens may or may not be renewed.

      I have no doubts Saab will be able to sell them to somebody looking for a lower cost jet, even if its decontented for (well off) civilian use. The 2-seater B could be easily converted to trainer use.

      The most likely scenario is that Saab will offer older Gripens to E/F purchasers as an "interim" fighter and to help transition, like it has done with Switzerland.

    4. @Richard
      There are no more A & B Griffins, they have all been converted into C & D Griffins...
      And according to SAAB, it is much cheaper to build new Griffin E/F then it is to convert C/D Griffins.

  2. Even if the US opted for the Gripen in a training/airshow role, why would it need a Gripen NG? an older version would do just fine. Price will be a huge factor and the bottom line is the Gripen NG is the most expensive light fighter you can buy.

    I believe that LM still has a good position thanks to its lobbying efforts. A lot of Pentagon staff and Generals will also need high paying jobs after retiring from the military.

    As we all know only LM does such things. Boeing has no lobbyists, refuses to hire any retired military, and donates its aircraft out of goodwill.

    1. In my previous comment I singled out Lockheed Martin because I was referring mainly to the T-50 in this context of LIFT/jet trainers. LM also stands out because of the F-22 and F-35 programs in the last years. I understand that every major company invests in lobbyists and offering jobs to key people in the military and procurement programs.

    2. Are you sure the Gripen is a lightwight fighter? It has the same or better capacity as super hornet and Eurofigter.

  3. I see Gripen as quite unlikely as a trainer for the USAF. It would simply be to expensive for that. Cost wise there is a world of difference between a trainer and an advanced modern multirole combat aircraft. Among these Gripen is probably the most cost effective, but can hardly compete with a trainer. Some has tried to belittle Gripen as a trainer, but it sure isn't

    There has though been talks on purchasing a number of Gripens for USAF as aggressor aircraft, but it seems it went nowhere.

    1. I just added a note to the above post.

      Apparently, Saab is considering entering a contender!

    2. The flight hour cost of Gripen is half of todays T-38. A new jet trainer is not cheaper per flight hour than Gripen but may last longer (like 10.000-12.000 flight hours compared with the standard 8.000 for a new fighter). Of course, you may get Gripen NG with F-414-EDE engine instead for F-414-G (F-414-EDE is a long life-time engine for trainers).

  4. One of the roles of the T38 is a supersonic trainer. The Hawk can't go supersonic, the M346 can just, whereas the T50 can do M1.6. Now one of the problems with the Gripen NG could be that it is too fast. You don't want a lowly trainer, out turning, outrunning, and outclimbing the F35, now that would be too embarrassing.

    To be in contention it will need to be a Gripen B or D.

    1. Unfortunately the Gripen B and D would still outrun, outclimb and out turn the F-35. The Gripen A - D has very good characteristics. The only "weak point" is the rather short legs as the Gripen A was designed to be a point defence fighter. Long range first became relevant as SAAB wanted to try and export the Gripen system, which is why air refueling made its debut with the C.
      I think I have read somewhere that the A actually has slightly better flight specs than the C but not sure. /Tor

  5. As far as I know, there are currently no plans for a Gripen F.
    So it will probably be a "Gripen T" based on Gripen D.
    Regarding price: we are looking at a complete different scale of economics here, as up to 434 T-38s need replacements.
    “Gripen T”, license built in the US by, say Boeing, should be considerably cheaper to procure than a Gripen E.

  6. The Gripen would need to " outrun, outclimb and out turn the F-35" because it would certainly not be able to shoot it down...

    1. Are you suggesting it is a requirement for a USAF trainer to be able to shot down a fully operational F-35? So you solution is to produce another 350 F-22's for training purposes. Luckily I'm not a US taxpayer.

    2. Shooting down a fully operational F-35 as a requirement would mean that F-5 can be used as a trainder.

  7. I hope this happens the Gripen entering as a T-X competitor...and wins! I think it is a great aircraft and would really be a boost to training fast jet pilots, and to American defense. Good move Boeing!

  8. The F-35 vastly outperforms a Gripen. Remember the F-35 carries 50% more internal fuel than the whole Gripen weighs.

    1. Ignoring the fact that your comment is completely off topic (this is post about two-seat trainers with a possible role as a lightweight fighter... Two things that the F-35 is NOT)...

      The F-35 is also a much heavier and bulkier aircraft with a much larger engine.

      Does a Ford F-150 go further than a Ford Focus just because it has a larger fuel tank? Does it go faster because it has a bigger engine?

  9. Tomas Nordstrand30 October 2014 at 07:15

    Hey, a challenge put up a number of gripen Es against F22 and in paricular JS(F) 35 on a LCO rating and combat/turnaround ration and check out the out come. That would be a challange u americans and brits would not like to du especially UK with their inferiour Typhoons