Authored By Dan Alex (Updated: 7/20/2016):
By the end of the 1970s, the Swedish Air Force found itself looking to advance their frontline fighter capabilities over that of the aging Saab Drakens and Viggens. The Draken, with its unique double-delta wing and single-engine design, was introduced in March of 1960 and managed a successful, if modest, existence with several air forces, being produced in 644 examples from 1955 to 1974. The Draken was developed to replace the outgoing Saab J29 Tunnan fighters. Comparatively, the Viggen made its presence known in June of 1971 to which 329 examples were produced from 1970 to 1990. The type was developed as a broader solution to undertake interception, strike and reconnaissance roles and sported a more conventional delta wing profile with forward canards and a single engine design. Work on their replacement began in 1979 with studies undertaken in 1980 to produce a modern end-product worthy of Swedish Air Force needs that could undertake a plethora of required battlefield roles. In 1981, a consortium was formed that involved Saab, Volvo Aero Corporation, Ericsson/GEC-Marconi and FFV Aerotech to design, develop and produce various portions of the aircraft program - the group known collectively as "IG JAS" (IG = "Industry Group"). In 1982, the Swedish government formally approved funding for the project which led to an order for five evaluation prototypes and a further 30 production quality aircraft.
Project requirements stipulated a "multi-role" airframe capable of Mach 2 flight that was to be of single engine design to help keep production costs down, utilize composites as a weight-saving measure and hold provision for air-to-air and air-to-surface weaponry of various types. The design would be all-modern in its nature, utilizing the latest in fly-by-wire concepts, aerodynamic principles, tracking and engagement equipment and field short runway take-off and landing qualities - the latter to coincide with utilization of Swedish roadways in the event of an invasion. In keeping with other Swedish military traditions, the new advanced fighter concept would have to sport an acceptable mission turn-around window during times of war. Of course, all this would have to come in under budget without overrun. Volvo Aero Corporation was given local license-production rights to manufacture the General Electric F404-400 series turbofan engine (as the "RM12") and it would be this powerplant that would power the new jet fighter. Ericsson/GEC-Marconi was handed the job of designing the powerful PS-05/A pulse Doppler X-band radar system. The end-product would, therefore, be very fast and agile with exceptional output power from its single engine installation. The fighter would be in the same classification as the General Dynamics F-16 Fighting Falcon or Northrop F-5 Tiger yet wield the capabilities of much larger multi-role types like the McDonnell Douglas F-15 Eagle.
The end result became the Saab JAS 39 "Gripen" ("Griffin"), a very sleek design incorporating a large-area, rear-set delta-wing configuration (removing the need for horizontal tailplanes while increasing internal fuel loads and external weapons-carrying capabilities. The wings were low-mounted on a slab-sided tubular fuselage frame to which the gently sloped nose cone capped the front end. Under the nose cone was the powerful search-and-tracking facility that allowed for "look-down/shoot-down" capability and multiple target "track-while-scan" and target assessment, all delivered to the pilot in real-time. The cockpit was situated ahead of amidships and behind the nose cone assembly with a two-piece canopy featuring light framing and excellent all-around views. The pilot sat in the requisite ejection seat surrounded by a digital instrument panel featuring three full-color, multi-mode Multi-Function Displays that allowed for push-button mission package selection (switching from air-to-air to air-to-ground attack at will), HOTAS controls (Hands-On Throttle and Stick) to keep the pilot's view up and away from the instrument panel and a wide-angled HUD (Heads-Up Display) atop the forward panel displaying pertinent mission and weapons information. The digital nature of the Gripen cockpit was such that the pilot maintained mission awareness and communications through an integrated real-time data exchange system (Tactical Information Data Link System = "TIDLS") with other allied aircraft (essentially a group of up to four "networked" Gripen aircraft working in concert). The airframe's design was inherently unstable but this was offset by the use of digital "fly-by-wire" (FBW) software suite that constantly managed the aircraft during flight, ensuring smooth assisted performance (the practice of unstable designs coupled with FBW technology was an increasingly used design method of the time that continues today). The cockpit was straddled by a pair of rectangular air intakes that aspirated the single engine installation which was buried deep within the fuselage and exhausted through a conventional circular exhaust ring at the rear. The empennage was capped by a sharp, clipped single vertical tail fin seated above and ahead of the engine exhaust port. A pair of canards (essentially small pivoting wings supplementing the main wings) were affixed to the sides of the intakes for increased stability/agility at various attack angles and short-field take-off and landings (the JAS 39 required just 2,625 feet of runway in the latter regard). The undercarriage was conventional and fully-retractable, featuring two single-wheeled main legs and a double-wheeled nose leg. Overall construction revealed as much as 20% to 30% of the airframe being composed of carbon fibers composites. At the time of its inception, the JAS 39 Gripen was the most advanced fighter anywhere in the world since supplanted by the "5th Generation" Lockheed F-22 Raptor and similar types. While not a "stealth" fighter per se, engineers ensured the Gripen delivered a reduced radar signature due to its inherent design and construction features when compared to similar aircraft types.
The JAS 39 program begat the "Project 2105" designation which graduated to become the "Project 2108" and finally evolved into the "Project 2110". A Saab Viggen was hastily converted in 1983 as a flying laboratory of sorts to be used in evaluating the required fly-by-wire system among other components to be used. The public gave the JAS 39 design the now-accepted "Gripen" name and the Saab JAS39 "Gripen" was born. The first production-quality aircraft was unveiled in April of 1987 which was also marked the 50th anniversary of the Saab concern itself - quite a fitting unveiling. Delays in development meant that a first flight was not recorded until December of 1988. In February of 1989, the prototype was lost to an issue related to the fly-by-wire software though the pilot survived with minor injuries (broken arm). In the year following, the software was revised and the program continued to progress. The second prototype went airborne in May of 1990.
The first order ("Batch 1") of JAS 39A single-seat fighters was inked for 30 units with an optional 100 JAS 39A and twin-seat JAS 39Bs to be considered (the latter was finalized in June of 1992 as "Batch 2"). In August of 1993, another prototype was lost to a stall with the pilot ejecting safely. The program did not progress until December of that year and, by April of 1994, the consortium had produced the five required prototypes for testing and a pair of production-quality Gripens for evaluation. The Saab JAS 39 Gripen was officially introduced for frontline service by the Swedish Air Force through its first Gripen squadron on November 1st, 1997. That same year, a further 50 Gripens (C/D models) were ordered through "Batch 3" and began appearing in 2003. Production is ongoing as of this writing (2012) to which over 240 examples have been produced to date. Defense powerhouse British Aerospace was signed on to help handle Gripen export needs and orders
The initial JAS 39A Gripen production version was joined by the two-seat JAS 39B variant which incorporated a second cockpit (tandem) for a reduced pilot workload though at the expense of less internal fuel and no internal cannon for close-in work. The rear cockpit also lacked the wide-angle HUD present in the forward cockpit. The forward fuselage was elongated to accept the extra cockpit placement and the variant could also double as an advanced trainer for new JAS 39 pilots. Beyond that, the JAS 39B was more or less the same JAS 39A aircraft production mark with the listed exceptions.
The single-seat JAS 39C (and corresponding twin-seat JAS 39D) was developed to produce a fighter that conformed to NATO standards required of the export market. This also fulfilled the third published Gripen production batch numbering 50 aircraft announced in June of 1997. The changes included a reworked electronics package, provision for Western ordnance support and basic in-flight refueling. The JAS 39D became the two-seat version of the JAS 39C, similar in form and function to the JAS 39B before it. The JAS 39C and JAS 39D have since been used to bring preceding JAS 39A and JAS 39B marks up to their respective standards.