Sweden’s parliament will probably decide to approve launch of the JAS 39E/F Gripen program in December, with a development contract to be issued in January, according to Lt Col Rickard Nystrom, head of aircraft programs in the requirements office at Sweden’s armed forces headquarters. The program is still dependent on support from Switzerland, which has its own political timetable, but Nystrom said at Defence IQ’s International Fighter conference that discussions with the Swiss forces and defense industry have been “fantastic, outstanding”. A Swiss air force presenter made it clear that no alternatives to the Gripen are being considered.
Sweden’s own target initial operational capability date is 2023, but the current plan calls for the Swedish air force to start to take delivery of its aircraft in 2018 in order to meet the terms of the framework agreement with Switzerland, which calls for Sweden to start operations first. Three jets are to be delivered in the second quarter of 2018, with five more in 2019-20. The planning goal is still for Sweden to operate 60-80 of the new aircraft, replacing its current force of 100 JAS 39C/Ds.
Nystrom says that the requirements process – expected to close on the last major details in weeks – has been aimed at a balanced design “congruent with strategy”. For example, the greater range of the JAS 39E reduces the need for air refueling, given that Sweden has closed 40 wartime dispersal bases that previously substituted for AAR. The JAS 39E is also intended to have “minimized radar cross section” without the internal weapons and fuel required for full stealth. “My goal is to make the requirement untouchable,” Nystrom says. “You can’t shoot it [the requirement] down unless you don’t like fighters.”
One newly disclosed development is that Sweden and Switzerland plan to operate only the single-seat JAS 39E. “It’s a cost question,” Nystrom explained. “If we were to go with a two-seater, we’d like to have an enhanced back seat, and we don’t have the money for that.” Weapon system operator training would also consume more resources.
An open issue is whether the initial JAS 39E will have the current General Electric F414G engine or a more advanced derivative. GE has defined a new version based on US Navy-sponsored development work and off-the-shelf technology, which can offer up to 20 per cent more thrust, better fuel efficiency or a combination of the two.
The Swiss air force is already working on plans for transition to the Gripen, which replaces its Northrop F-5E Tigers, according to Col Fabio Antognini, the service’s Gripen program manager. The new fighters are needed to expand and restore capabilities, including the ability to close the nation’s airspace around the clock for 14 days (the Tigers are limited to daytime/clear weather operation) and to perform ground attack and reconnaissance missions, which the Swiss air force has not been able to carry out since retiring Hunters and Mirages.
The F-5Es have to be retired soon, so Switzerland will lease 11 JAS 39C/D Gripens in 2016-17 as a bridge to the new version. The first of 22 JAS 39Es will arrive in mid-2018. Eleven aircraft are to be handed over by the end of 2019 with the remainder arriving in 2020-21.
The JAS 39Cs will be returned to Sweden one-for-one as the JAS 39Es are delivered, but the JAS 39Ds (three of them) may be retained longer. There is no current plan to replace the country’s Boeing F/A-18C/D Hornets: “We will operate those aircraft as long as possible, and as long as Boeing supports them,” Antognini says.