Saab JAS 39 Gripen (Griffin)
Lightweight 4th Generation Multi-role Fighter Aircraft
The Swedish-originated Saab JAS 39 Gripen is in relatively limited use worldwide - though interest in this highly-capable fighter continues to grow.
Authored By: Dan Alex | Last Edited:
The Saab JAS 39 "Gripen" ("Griffin") forms the primary fighter wing of the Swedish Air Force (among others). The type is a highly-advanced aerial platform utilizing the latest in digital controls and weapons delivery all the while being produced in a modestly sized and highly streamlined package to strict Swedish Air Force requirements. The JAS 39 has been in operational service since 1997 after a relatively long development period and export interest has grown with the loosening of typically strict Swedish export rules (and their historically neutral stance). To date, the JAS 39 stocks the inventories of several air forces in the world and over 240 of the type have been produced in single-seat and twin-seat forms. The Gripen remains a major global player in the realm of advanced lightweight fighter designs, able to undertake a variety of mission roles from air defense to interception, ground attack to armed reconnaissance as well as training. The Saab Gripen is comparable on the world stage with the American General Dynamics F-16 Fighting Falcon and the Russian Mikoyan MiG-29 Fulcrum series.
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.
The JAS 39C/D models share the same specifications (apart from their overall running lengths). The base C-model measures a length of 14.1 meters with the D-model extending out to 14.8 meters. Wingspans of both types is 8.4 meters while ground height is 4.5 meters. Both versions are powered by the same Volvo Aero RM12 turbofan engine with afterburn capability. This produces a dry thrust rating of 12,100lbs and an afterburning thrust rating of 18,100lbs. Maximum speed at altitude is 1,372 miles per hour (Mach 2.0). The powerplant/airframe combination allow for a combat radius of 500 miles and a ferry range of 2,000 miles with external drop tanks installed. The operational service ceiling is 50,000 feet.
The JAS 39A and JAS 39C single-seat fighter variants are the only production marks armed with the 1 x 27mm Mauser BK-27 Gatling-type internal cannon which is afforded 120 rounds. The twin-seat B- and D- production models lack this installation due to the addition of the second cockpit. However, all Gripen designs share the same nine hardpoints for the carrying of various munitions. Three hardpoints (six total) are found on each wing (2 x underwing and 1 x at the wingtip) with three located under the fuselage (2 x under the intakes and 1 x fuselage centerline). The central fuselage position and inner-most underwing hardpoints are plumbed for a jettisonable external fuel tank for increased operational ranges apart from in-flight refueling. The wingtip mounts are reserved for short-ranged air-to-air missiles launched from rail assemblies. The JAS 39C/D can make use of various short-to-medium ranged air-to-air missiles, air-to-surface missiles, anti-ship missiles, rocket pods, laser-guided munitions, cluster bombs and conventional drop bombs. Cleared munitions include 13.5cm rockets (fired from pods), the Rb.74 (AIM-9 Sidewinder), the Rb.98 (IRIS-T), the Rb.99 (AIM-120 AMRAAM), the MBDA MICA tactical air-to-air missile, the Rb.71 Skyflash, the Meteor Beyond Visual Range (BVR) missile, the Rb.75 (AGM-65 Maverick), the KEPD.350 air-launched cruise missile, the Rbs.15F anti-ship missile, the GBU-12 Paveway II laser-guided bomb, the Bk.90 cluster bomb and the Mark 82 drop bomb.
Saab developed a twin-seat technology demonstrator through the Gripen "Demo" iniative. The type has been utilized to prove concepts for the Gripen NG ("Next Generation") aircraft. The Gripen NG has been given an all-new F414G series turbofan engine with new avionics. Internal fuel volume has been increased as has the airframe's maximum take-off weight. As such, the Gripen NG will be able to fly faster, farther and longer than before with a more expanded weapons role. The Swedish Air Force is intending the Gripen NG to be its next standardized Gripen form by the end of the decade, effectively set to produce the "JAS 39C Plus" and "JAS 39D Plus" designations corresponding with the existing, though eventually modified, C- and D-models. At any rate, the Gripen NG is an important development product to the future of JAS 39 sales and program expansion.
To help broaden its foreign appeal to navy-minded customers, Saab is also working on a navalized version of the land-based Gripen. This particular design will be based on the project data accumulated through the Gripen NG initiative above and will incorporate various features common to modern-day carrier-based multi-role aircraft including a strengthened undercarriage, folding wings and applicable radar facilities.
The JAS 39E/F production models are proposed (now realized) multirole next generation variants (single-seat and twin-seat respectively) intended to make extensive use of networked aircraft under Sweden's vision of "WIde Spectrum COMbat" ("WISCOM"). These will feature data based on the Gripen NG model initiative mentioned above.
The Gripen is utilized by only a handful of countries worldwide outside of the Swedish Air Force itself and include 14 leased C/D examples to the Czech Air Force, 14 leased C/D examples to the Hungarian Air Force, 18 purchased C/D examples to the South African Air Force (26 on order) and 6 purchased examples (12 on order) to the Royal Thai Air Force (all numbers for the year 2012). The United Kingdom operates several Gripen models strictly for training through the Empire Test Pilot's School at Wiltshire based on a standing agreement with Sweden. Other nations are contemplating upgrades to their frontline fighter line and may find the JAS 39 suiting their modern multi-role needs.
Gripens were fielded under the United Nations banner during the enforcement of the No-Fly Zone over Libya during the 2011 rebellion. While not directly involved in ground strike missions, Gripens operated in the air defense role in keeping with required mission parameters meant to limit the use of the Libyan Air Force. The action served to showcase the Gripen its first true combat role and prove it a successful and modern breed of fighter. Beyond that, Gripens have yet to see substantial direct-combat operations as its direct export competitor remains the General Dynamics F-16 Fighting Falcon - which has seen extensive use and modernization since its inception in 1978. 4,500 of this mount have been produced to the several Gripens available. The Russian Mikoyan MiG-29 Fulcrum is an Eastern-based alternative to the F-16 for customers not wishing to do business with the United States. The Gripen surely enjoys a fast mission turnaround time (reportedly just ten minutes) when under the direction of a trained JAS 39 mechanic and five assistants. Onboard diagnostic systems also assist in maintenance and produce a highly-available weapons platform which, in turn, tends to keep operational and repair costs in check.