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The Swedish Model

How to build a jet fighter.

11:45 PM, Apr 30, 2008 • By REUBEN F. JOHNSON
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Linköping, Sweden

ON WEDNESDAY APRIL 23, Sweden's Saab Aerospace rolled out what may become the fighter aircraft that sets the standard for the future of the military aerospace business. What Saab is calling the "Next-Generation Gripen" (Gripen N/G for short), is a substantially modernized version of its JAS-39C/D model, the fighter currently in service or in the process of being delivered to the air forces of Sweden, Hungary, the Czech Republic, South Africa, and Thailand.

As fighter aircraft go, the Gripen does not have the look of a super-stealthy, new-age marvel like the two most recent Lockheed Martin (LM) platforms--the F-22A Raptor or the F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter (JSF). The new Gripen N/G will also not feature an entire bevy of brand-new, designed-from scratch on-board systems, although there are some 3,500 new components that are part of the aircraft's configuration.

The notable changes to the JAS-39 in its new incarnation are the replacement of its single Volvo RM-12 engine with one General Electric F414G, a variant of the same engine used as a two-power plant propulsion system on the Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet--a 25 per cent increase in thrust. The airplane also will have a new active electronically scanning array (AESA) radar set, a technology that has now become a more or less standard requirement for any new fighter aircraft. (This new radar will feature a Saab Microwave Systems PS-05 design on the back end of the radar set, with a Thales active array similar to that used on the Dassault Rafale fighter's RBE2 radar on the front end.)

But the change that has perhaps the biggest impact on the Gripen's performance has nothing to do with high-technology weaponry or sensors. The landing gear have been displaced from the undercarriage to the main wing pylons. This frees up a large space in the center fuselage section of the aircraft and provides room for additional fuel tanks. This gives the new Gripen and unrefueled range of 2,200 nautical miles, 500 more than the unrefueled range of the F-16.

What is remarkable about this Swedish product is that despite being produced in rather modest numbers--and then add in the high rates of taxation and super-expensive Scandinavian welfare state in which the plane will be produced--this jet will still end up costing less than half of the price of a Joint Strike Fighter, perhaps as little as one-third. Moreover, customers of the Gripen are going to have full access to the aircraft's software source code and will be able to make their own modifications and integration of weapon systems.

But, the most interesting fact about the Gripen is what it says about the fallacy upon which most modern-day military aircraft programs are based.

There are about six fighter jets in the world that could be classified as "new-generation designs." The Gripen, France's Dassault Rafale, the F-22A and F-35, Russia's Sukhoi Su-35 Super Flanker, and the four-nation consortium (UK, Germany, Italy, and Spain) Eurofighter Typhoon. (A sixth player that can in some respects be considered a new model is Russia's modernised version of the Mikoyan MiG-29, which is designate the "MiG-35," although it retains almost the same basic platform as the MiG-29 it does contain an AESA and a host of other new systems in it its configuration.)

Of these six aircraft, three of them are designed and built by several companies or several nations cooperating together. The F-22A is a joint program between LM and Boeing, with several subsystem contractors also on board as major partners. The Eurofighter is largely a product of the aerospace industries of the four original partner nations. The F-35 is the biggest cooperative program of them all, pulling in the aerospace firms of the United States and the United Kingdom, plus industrial partners from many of the other nations that are also part of the program.

Military airplane programs that are produced by these "teams" of companies are structured this way because--as the rationale goes--it is "too expensive for one company or one country to go it alone." Sharing the costs of designing, testing, building, and validating new technologies--and giving each country or company that part of the program where they have a competitive advantage--is supposed to make these airplanes cheaper to procure for all of the participants.