A future-proof fighter jet
Modern fighter jets have typically been designed to withstand 8,000 total hours of flight time during their operational lifespan. With an average of 200 hours in the air each year, this means they are expected to continue delivering high performance in sorties and missions for somewhere between thirty and forty years.
Because fighters represent an extensive investment for governments, it is vital that they remain effective and operationally competitive throughout their entire time in service. That means they need to adapt to each significant new technology and threat that comes along to change the way a fighter jet operates. For Gripen that's not a problem since that way of thinking is in the DNA of Gripen from the beginning.
“How many people drive a car that is more than 15 years old?”, asks Knut Övrebö, Chief Engineer at Future Air Systems, Saab business area Aeronautics. “I would say not very many. That’s what makes Gripen quite unique. It is designed to remain at the forefront of capabilities for decades. I am part of a team that is developing a product that is regularly enhanced to keep it at its best over 40 years.”
Key to longevity - Adaptable, open architecture
Knowing that the key to the longevity of Gripen would be its platform--the initial technology on which the plane is based--the conceptual designers made it open architecture. Gripen E's platform has a modular design that can be easily adapted, to utilize future solutions that doesn't necessarily have to be built in-house. This allows the rapid integration of new technology and functions as they are developed, in order to take on and defeat new combat challenges without excessive cost or downtime.
We’ve already made a huge leap in just one generation in developing new technology to help the pilot with elements of flying the aircraft and with decision-making tasks.
As Övrebö explains, “The systems integration hub is where Saab excels compared to others. This is where all technical disciplines merge into an optimised solution."
The actual hardware that Aeronautics produce is generally limited to the airframe and the structure. Other parts such as computers, displays, sensors and weapons, must be procured from elsewhere. But most key enabling systems, including all systems that are deemed strategically vital, can actually be delivered by other Saab business areas.
"This combined strength and diversity of business units makes Saab unique compared to competitors in the fighter market.”
Technology is advancing rapidly and thereby also the threats, so to ensure that a modern combat aircraft doesn’t become obsolete in ten years after its launch, it must be adaptable. Upgrades are essential, but it’s also essential that they are easy to manage, quick to implement and affordable to sustain for today, and for the future.
“I’m imagining what could be feasible with this aircraft well beyond my own retirement, in a timeframe far into the future, because Gripen is being constantly enhanced and improved,” adds Övrebö.
It’s clear that Gripen has been designed with a long-term future in mind.
Making tomorrow's Gripen today
Knut Övrebö describes the evolution of Gripen from the late 1970s, where designers in the Saab Aeronautics design department “basically had a blank sheet of paper to fill”, up to 1993 and the initial exploration of what Gripen could look like in the future. At this time, the research included investigating ideas about extending sensing capabilities, weapons capacity, missile range and the endurance of the fighter.
When it comes to the future design of Gripen, designer have to forecast the technological trends that can help Saab take the aircraft further.
"It's the re-education of the mindset," explains Knut Övrebö.
Today, taking advantage of new functional materials such as nanotechnology, and huge advances in manufacturing and development, future fighters may one day have radically different properties. These include airframes that are regularly and easily replaced, while the inside of the fighter continues to be developed and enhanced. The future Gripen and its successors will benefit from the technologies being developed now.
“The airframe constitutes around twenty-five percent of the total cost of a current fighter. By applying new materials and rethinking the design and manufacturing we can reduce the cost,” says Övrebö.
Environmental considerations have also been addressed in designing Gripen of the future. Saab has already conducted test flights using 100 per cent biofuel and manufacturing processes are constantly being enhanced to make them more environmentally sustainable.
Among the promising candidate areas for future Gripen development are enhanced sensors and weapons, complementary unmanned components and autonomous control enabling missions that see interaction between manned and unmanned aircraft. By the mid 2040s we should expect to see a new generation of air systems. These will include new generation weapons, sensors, functional materials, and multi-spectral stealth technology.
Modern conflicts and smarter fighters
Fighting in modern conflicts requires being constantly one step ahead of opponents. Rapid technological progress has driven the development of longer reach weapons and radars with greater precision, low signature targets and advanced electronic warfare.
Air combat is now defined by technology. With the evolution of the battlespace, a fighter needs to be able to handle much more than before, and quicker than ever too.
“IT and computing technology have grown exponentially in the area of what information can be made available to pilots in the fighter, as well as what the fighter can do,” says Knut Övrebö.
Gripen achieves the optimal balance between the pilot's and the fighter's decision space, by letting fighter intelligence take on a larger role. Gripen's fighter intelligence is able to work autonomously in several areas simultaneously; this provides the pilot with cueing and suggestions that range from weapon selection to full manoeuvring of the fighter in an emergency. In addition, it shares and displays the right tactical information, giving an optimised battlespace overview to the Gripen pilot at precisely the right moment.
“There is an ambition that in 10 to 15 years we can combine Gripen with unmanned systems. In this way, more advanced tasks can be integrated, such as aircraft that can release small subsystems of aircraft decoys that fly for a few minutes, disposable surveillance robots and other systems that aid the pilot by gathering vital defence information; these also keep the pilot and the fighter out of harm’s way.”
While Saab needs to carry out more research and obtain more strategic information Övrebö says that the company is looking at the possibility of totally unmanned or optionally manned aircraft. Such a radical step in autonomy would benefit pilots as they could focus fully on the management and coordination of the mission rather than on the actual flying of the fighter.
“We’ve already made a huge leap in just one generation in developing new technology to help the pilot with elements of flying the aircraft and with decision-making tasks.
Inside the cockpit
Gripens fighter intelligence shares and displays the right tactical information at the right time, giving the pilot an optimised battlespace overview.
Join Saab’s test pilot from inside the Gripen cockpit to get the full experience and a sense of the extreme g-forces.
Innovations built to last
It’s hard to imagine that the smartphone in your pocket has anything in common with Gripen, one of the most modern fighters in aviation history. But they have more similarities between them than meets the eye.
Both rely on technology that can be upgraded and updated without the need for costly replacement, to ensure continual performance at optimal levels. And both have been developed with built-in flexibility, allowing the original product to evolve and to be customised to meet the changing needs of the user.
We try to keep the software for Gripen as generic as possible. By having generic software and generic computers that aren’t dependent on each other, it’s much easier to upgrade software.
The same way that you download apps for your smartphone that fit your individual preferences, with Gripen, software adaptations can be made to address new and evolving types of threats.
The ability to customise the functionality of the fighter to address future needs is due to the adaptability of the advanced Avionics Platform Software (APS) architecture that is embedded in Gripen software.
Avionics platform software architecture
Thousands of hours have been spent developing the many thousands of lines of code that together make the avionics software for the latest generation of Gripen, Gripen E. But it’s not a static process. As the technology becomes increasingly advanced, Gripen is evolving with it.
“Changes are very rapid on the software side,” explains Daniela Ivanic, Project Manager, Avionics Platform Software at Saab.
By designing the avionics architecture for Gripen to separate flight critical functions; the functions that ensure the safety and security of pilots, from mission critical functions; which include intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance, as well as communication, radio and navigation systems for combat and peacekeeping operations, mission functions can be upgraded without having to retest safety critical functions.
“We try to keep the software for Gripen as generic as possible. By having generic software and generic computers that aren’t dependent on each other, it’s much easier to upgrade software. For instance, when integrating new functionality or a new weapons system, the protocols are standardised. That way we don’t need to upgrade the computers as well,” says Ivanic.
The avionics architecture also enables the integration of tailor-made customer applications, and it reduces the risk of the system becoming obsolete. Almost any weapon can be integrated thanks to the flexible avionic architecture, giving the fighter very high weapon flexibility. One of the great benefits of the avionics architecture design is the customisation level of the software.
“We can either add new functionality by developing new software applications to run on current hardware; the existing avionics computers. Or slightly adapt the current platform software to upgrade the hardware for performance. We don’t necessarily have to change both. The fighter won’t be spending a lot of time on the ground for time consuming requalification of the entire aircraft, so it’s available for the next mission quickly."
The separated avionics architecture in Gripen E is certified to the highest software technicality level. In software terms, this means that Gripen E is the most secure fighter system on the market.
It’s the inside that counts
Like the smartphone, the software is the most important feature of the future proof fighter. Daniela Ivanic explains how Gripen is adapted to new technology and new threats without investments in new hardware.
Software testing and development
Continual testing of the software follows strict processes, using manual as well as automated tests. “Testing is an important part of what we do. Being able to see the simulation of a real flight, with the system up and running in the simulators and seeing exactly what the pilot would see, is invaluable to the process,” Daniela Ivanic says.
All testing is performed with the help of flight simulators and the certification standards for software used in airborne systems and equipment certification.
“In many ways, testing is also software development. Ten years ago, you sat with applications and followed multiple steps in system testing. Today you are developing software tests to do the same thing. Now as we develop Gripen, we are also becoming a software company because we are continuously developing new software to meet and fit our current, as well as future needs."
Since the first flight of Gripen E in June 2017, the software platform has been updated. In addition to tweaking the hardware and the hardware performance, all of the Gripen E computers have also been updated.
“The basics of the platform that were in the first flight edition are still there, but we’ve added so many new functions that we have basically updated the total system,” explains Ivanic.
“We now have the complete context of Gripen E, and we can show how fast we can update something. It’s so important to be able to describe the total offer; not just the first addition,” she says.
As further artificial intelligence enhancements and adaptive machine learning capabilities are considered, the tactical agility and ability to adapt future technologies will be built in from the start, and new functionality areas for Gripen will be possible to incorporate with ease.
Built to fly
A fighter in modern combat needs to spend as much time in the air as possible, keeping downtime to a minimum. Gripen’s small support footprint makes it combat-ready in minutes. Even changing the entire engine takes less than an hour.
Master of the turnaround
Gripen is a smart fighter with a “minimal logistical footprint”. That means it has been designed for maintenance and quick turnaround without the need for a large number of technicians on the ground to conduct checks and get the aircraft back in the air. Many of the necessary maintenance steps are easy to perform, can be done using simple tools, and do not require a long time to complete.
Changing the engine is one of the most impressive parts of the new Gripen generation [...] everything we need to do to service it has been done in around 45 minutes.
“The tools we use for maintenance between sorties are very basic. You need a flashlight to check the oil levels, and you need refuelling equipment. You don’t need any equipment to open any hatches, because there are quickhatches,” says Per Sverker, Maintenance Manager, Test Hangar, at Saab’s facilities in Linköping, Sweden.
The ability to deploy swiftly with minimum resources was a basic requirement of the Swedish Armed Forces, as the first generation of the Gripen fighter was being initially conceived as a replacement for its existing fighter jets. Gripen was also designed to execute operations not only from small bases such as road strips, but from extremely short or battle-damaged runways.
Today, Gripen has been further enhanced with features that ensure it retains the original concept of a minimal logistical footprint. For instance, replacing complex avionic equipment such as the radar or even changing the plane’s engine can be accomplished in under an hour.
“Changing the engine is one of the most impressive parts of the new Gripen generation. It’s very easy. The fastest time we’ve had, from running the engine to changing the engine and completing everything we need to do to service it has been done in around 45 minutes,” says Sverker.
The smart design of the Gripen means that no specific support equipment is needed to access the engine bay. The engine is mounted in three places, including pipes and an electrical connection. Although it is very easy to change the engine, it is so good that you don’t need to change it often,” Sverker explains.
An air to air turnaround, including refuelling and rearming weapons, can be done in less than ten minutes. This means that Gripen’s air time is maximised, and downtime is kept to a minimum.
“In the rearming testing we do, the hatches are opened, but we use blanks not live ammunition. This process is very fast, and the refuelling is done quickly as well. Basically, Gripen is always combat ready,” says Sverker.
Gripen is fully NATO compatible, using NATO-standard aircraft fuel and other replenishables. In addition, refuelling of Gripen can be done while the fighter is in the air.
"Nowadays, air-to-air refuelling is a standard on Gripen. This capability was developed and tested on one the early prototypes. To explore where to put the refuelling probe we did ground testing and flight testing with a mockup probe mounted on the prototype Gripen. The flight tests were perfomed to verify the construction of the probe by flying behind a tanker aircraft and connect to the air-to-air refuelling device," Per Sverker explains.
For technicians, this adaptability means that refuelling isn’t necessary to do on the ground, leaving more air time for sorties. “This feature means that when pilots are halfway through a sortie, they can get more fuel without having to land,” says Sverker.
Trained unit technicians
There are many countries where fighter aircraft technicians are required to specialise in a specific area of the aircraft, for instance in surveillance systems or weapons technology. However, Gripen technicians are trained as unit technicians in order to be able to work with the entire aircraft system.
Since the technology is constantly changing and there are regular updates for new functionality and weapons, the maintenance team need to master a range of equipment including computer software for maintenance checks, aircraft systems and fault-checking systems. The Saab Gripen maintenance team in the test hangar includes former air force technicians, as well as a number of employees who have gained their experience on the job, trained at work and fine tuned their expertise with on-the-job learning. A few of the maintenance team members have spent close to 50 years working at Saab.
Short take-off and landing strips
Gripen was designed to be able to take off and land using designated areas of the existing Swedish road system, which were built for use as temporary runways and airbases if the country experienced a military invasion. These so-called road bases are often narrow and short, so the fighter jets using them need to be able to handle short take-offs and landings, as well as provide easy outdoor maintenance and service.
Gripen can take off and land on runways that are just 800 metres long and 16 metres wide, and the fighter has been designed for all different types of weather and runway conditions, including the harsh snow-covered runways in the Arctic climates found in northern Sweden.
“It is really something when you see Gripen coming in to land,” says Sverker. “Those short landings mean you need a fighter with very good brakes, which Gripen definitely has.”
The plane and the pilot
Being a test pilot for Gripen means playing a vital role in the making of a future proof fighter jet. It’s the test pilot’s job to master the challenges of a rapidly changing combat environment, and do so while dealing with the intense pressure of accelerating g-forces.
Man and Machine
Gripen test pilots play an important role in evaluating the technology enhancements and upgrades in the fighter’s air combat weapon systems. They must be critical thinkers who are able to adapt to different situations, to lead and conduct testing and to evaluate new and existing aerospace weapon systems. “As a Gripen test pilot my main task is to perform test flights where I evaluate the Gripen’s performance and capabilities up in the sky,” says Mikael Olsson, Test Pilot, Saab.
Test pilots must know and be thinking of how the aircraft will be used. One way of ensuring that is to stay in close contact with the air force.
Before the test flights are conducted, Gripen test pilots spend many hours in the flight simulator evaluating the systems. Additional hours are spent at design meetings, where test pilots assist Saab engineers and offer pilot opinions on design solutions and decisions.
The G-suit is a vital piece of equipment for every Gripen pilot. Without it, the pilot would not be able to adjust to the accelerating G-forces that are part and parcel of the extreme conditions of combat. Here's how it works...
“Test pilots must know and be thinking of how the aircraft will be used. One way of ensuring that is to stay in close contact with the air force. In my case I go back to the Swedish Air Force and fly every year with my old squadron”, says Marcus Wandt, Test Pilot at Saab.
Modern warfare has seen the evolution of the battlespace. Today fighter pilots need to be able to handle much more than before, and at a higher pace. Gripen achieves the optimal balance between the pilot and the fighter, by letting fighter intelligence take on a larger role in working autonomously on several areas simultaneously. The systems provides the pilot with cueing and suggestions ranging from weapon selection to full manoeuvring of the fighter in an emergency.
Test pilots have presentations on the system, the aircraft and the methodology used by Saab, in order to not only evaluate the fighter, but to instruct other pilots that will be flying the fighter. Part of their work includes observing and analysing how the aircraft operates as well as understanding the engineering that is behind the functionality. For test pilots this can mean understanding where any discrepancies lie in the functionality and offering suggestions on how to address these issues.
“I am honoured that I was on the first flight of the Gripen E. All the work and effort that has been put into this project, and the level of complexity a system like this has, as well as being able to take this fighter for its first flight and see that it works so nicely, that was just fantastic,” says Wandt.
Built for the future – 30 years ago
30 years after the first Gripen took off on its very first flight, the designated test pilot Stig Holmström compares his experience with Marcus Wandt, the first test pilot to fly the latest Gripen generation, Gripen E.