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.
Except that just the opposite has occurred. The F-35, a single-engine stealthy aircraft, is projected by a recent report from the U.S. Government Accounting Office to cost in the neighbourhood of $130 million per copy. This is a program that, when it was developed, was specifically designed to be "cheap," as in around $35-40 million per copy, and that the designers were to make maximum use of commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) components in order to achieve that efficiency. So, why does it end up costing more than three times one of the aircraft it is supposed to replace-- the F-16--and almost three times the price of the Gripen? (Not surprisingly, some of the JSF partner nations--namely Norway--are now talking about bolting from the program in favor of a Gripen purchase instead.)
The Eurofighter, partially thanks the catastrophic drop in value of the U.S. dollar against the Euro (and if you live in Europe as I do and try to buy groceries and gas with dollars, "catastrophic" might not even be a strong enough description for the situation), is now well over US $100 million. It suffers from the fact that it was organised and planned primarily as "welfare for European aerospace and high-tech industries," as one UK-based analyst described it, "and as a program to produce a fighter as a secondary consideration."
The economies of scale that the Eurofighter was supposed to benefit from as a result of being built by a "team" of companies never materialised. Instead multiple redundancies were created that only added to the bottom line and caused the progress of the program to move forward at what seemed like a snail's pace at times. "Don't tell anyone I ever told you this," said a frustrated Eurofighter test pilot to me during a private chat at the Le Bourget air show almost a decade ago, "but there are no efficiencies achieved in this program by having four separate flight test centres--one in each of the partner nations." The Eurofigther also has production lines in each of the four nations, plus ground test facilities, etc.
(Having had the experience of the Eurofighter has not caused European industry to rethink the viability of this model very much. The new-age European military transport, the Airbus A400M, will be built in only one factory instead of four, the CASA/EADS factory in Sevilla, Spain, but the costs of the program are still expected to make it the most expensive aircraft of its kind ever built.)
F-22A tops them all, however. The program's development has been long and expensive. Admittedly, several technologies were pioneered and matured by the process of designing and testing the F-22A. Many of these technologies--now that F-22A has "paid the freight"--can be dialled into numerous other future programs. But, when these development costs are amortised over the production run of the Raptor, the aircraft comes in at a whopping US $390 million per unit.
Surprisingly, the three aircraft that are built by one company in one country--a feat that we have been told for more than 20 years is "no longer affordable"--all cost well under $100 million. These are the Gripen, the Rafale, and the Su-35. All of them contain the latest in on-board systems technology, but they have been designed with stealthy airframe shaping being far less important and with more reliance on electronic warfare as a means of keeping them survivable in the air combat or air defence environment.
There is something to be said for the fact that the emphasis on a stealthy, low radar cross section (RCS) aircraft shape does a lot to increase the costs of the F-22A and F-35, and that this is a technology that is the competitive advantage that the United States has over its adversaries. What is sobering to realize, however, is that the one U.S. aircraft that was built with RCS being its primary--in fact, perhaps its only--consideration was just retired this week after one of the shortest service lifespans in the modern jet age: the Lockheed Skunk Works F-117A Stealth Fighter.
The F-117A is now regarded as "old" technology where its RCS reduction methods are concerned and no longer as effective ("its survivability has been eroded" is the operative term) as it once was. Its missions will be taken over by other more modern stealthy aircraft, such as the F-35. One has to ask the question, though, given the significant advances by Russia, China, and other nations in counter-stealth methods and air defence, will the ultra-expensive F-22 and F-35 face similarly truncated service lives?
(The fact that the F-117A design is said to be outmoded and made obsolete by these newer model fighters did not keep the US Air Force from continuing to engage in needlessly silly security arrangements. The world's most famous and experienced air-to-air aircraft photographer, Katsuhiko Tokunaga of Japan, was barred from the retirement ceremony on the grounds that "no foreigners at all are allowed." This despite the fact that he has flown more than 1,000 hours in the rear seats of almost all U.S. fighters and has completed some of the most extensive air-to-air photography of the--supposedly--much more advanced F-22A.)
On Monday the Indian Ministry of Defence accepted bids from six U.S. and foreign competitors for the Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (M-MRCA) program. The $10 billion-plus program is the PowerBall lotto of fighter aircraft sales and will be the largest procurement of a military aircraft by a export customer in more than three decades.
The JAS-39, because of its reasonable cost and the many improvements made in the Gripen N/G configuration, is one of the odds-on favourites in this competition. Eurofighter, the MiG-35, Rafale, F-16, and F/A-18 are all in the bidding, but the Swedish bid is considered by some to be the one proposal that will meet all of India's requirements. (Gripen's India-based team were carrying the shrink-wrapped proposal in their cabin baggage on the flight back to New Delhi after this week's rollout ceremony.)
How India decides will say a lot about how the future military aircraft business develops worldwide. If New Delhi's decision makers opt for the Gripen, the whole concept of teaming and multinational program needs to be re-examined - as does the heavy US emphasis on RCS as the primary design criteria. With other future military programs starting to form up as more "team" projects, such as the USAF Next Generation Bomber (NGB), these are considerations that need to be addressed now rather than later.
Reuben F. Johnson is a contributor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD Online.