Africa's air forces could be getting a Grippen
Recognising that many African economies are growing and noting that some African air forces need, or may soon need, new fighters, Saab is quietly promoting the Gripen. Jon Lake reports.
In service in South Africa since 2008, the Saab JAS39 Gripen could be a good ‘fit’ for a number of African air forces in the future.
In May this year, Botswana’s Business Weekly & Review ran a front cover picture of a Gripen aircraft under the heading “Done deal”, reporting that 16 Gripen fighters were to be procured for the Botswana Air Force at a total cost of 16-18 billion Botswana pula ($1.45-1.63bn), with deliveries within two to three years.
Linda Bengtsson, a spokesman for the Swedish defence procurement agency, Försvarets Materielverk (FMV), which also looks after Swedish defence exports, confirmed that there had been a ‘dialogue’ about the potential supply of eight Gripen C/D aircraft, though Saab quickly stepped in to clarify that while Botswana was a “good potential customer”, any discussions were at “a very early stage”, and that it was “very far from a done deal”.
But, with its history of stable, representative democracy, and an uninterrupted record of democratic elections since becoming independent within the Commonwealth on September 30 1966, Botswana is exactly the kind of state that Sweden will do business with, and to which it would be willing to supply fighter aircraft and other defence material.
Meanwhile, Botswana has become one of the fastest-growing economies in the world, with the fourth-largest gross national income in Africa, and one of the highest per capita gross domestic products (GDPs) in the continent, as well as being the highest ranked nation in continental sub-Saharan Africa on the Human Development Index.
It is small wonder, then, that when he outlined Gripen’s future prospects at last year’s Paris Air Salon, Ulf Nilsson, head of Saab’s aeronautics division, was quick to list Botswana as a potential customer, alongside two other named African nations.
Jerker Ahlqvist, Saab’s vice president for the aeronautics business area, estimated that Botswana was looking to replace its Canadair CF-5 Freedom Fighters within two to five years, and also identified Namibia and Kenya as potential customers.
Ahlqvist said that Namibia had ambitions, and explained: “They want to get rid of their Chinese aircraft and find something else.” He described some degree of uncertainty as to where the Namibians would find the money, while noting recent oil and gas discoveries. He put a five-to-ten year timescale on any Namibian deal.
Nilsson described Kenya as “an accessible market, in terms of global opportunities”, while Ahlqvist claimed that “Kenya has a strong interest in Gripen, but there is uncertainty there about when they could find the money for such a programme”.
But, despite this uncertainty, Nilsson remains convinced that the Gripen C (and the two-seat Gripen D) represents a very viable proposition for these African nations based on the aircraft’s blend of advanced capabilities and low costs.
There have been strong hints that while the JAS39C/D is already significantly cheaper than the company’s new JAS39E, there are also second-hand aircraft available, including ex-Swedish Air Force early-model JAS39As and two-seat JAS39Bs that could be refurbished and converted to JAS39C/D standards at even lower cost. These aircraft have very long airframe lives ahead of them.
Though Saab is now developing a new version of the Gripen – the advanced, AESA radar-equipped, longer-range Gripen E – the company is continuing to offer the older Gripen C and Gripen D.
In its latest guise, with upgraded MS20 software, the aircraft will gain new radar, weapon, and combat functionalities. The MS20 upgrade will enable all JAS 39C/D Gripens to use the MBDA Meteor beyond visual-range air-to-air missile. The weapon was tested on the JAS 39C in July 2014 and is now in operational service with Swedish Air Force Gripens, which thereby became the first fighter aircraft to field the weapon.
Saab has claimed that: “The addition of Meteor air-to-air capability makes Gripen the most formidable counter-air platform in service.” The MS20 upgrade will also allow the aircraft to carry the small-diameter bomb.
Saab Defense Systems has developed a new Mark 4 version of its PS-05/A radar for the JAS 39C/D, which promises to double air-to-air and air-to-ground detection ranges, while also improving the radar’s capabilities against very low radar cross-section targets.
The 17 single-seat JAS 39C and nine dual-seat JAS 39D aircraft operated by the South African Air Force (SAAF) No.2 Squadron (the Flying Cheetahs) at Makhado Air Force Base (AFB) are to be upgraded to the new standard, following the signing of a SEK 180 million ($21.6m) steady state support contract with Saab Grintek Defence in December 2013.
This contract saved half of the fleet from being mothballed, keeping all aircraft in a state of operational readiness, and also allowed South Africa to join the incremental spiral development programme.
South Africa originally ordered 28 Gripens (nine two-seaters and 19 single-seaters) in 1998 to meet its advanced light fighter aircraft (ALFA) requirement. The order was revised to nine two-seat and 17 single-seat aircraft in 2005, and the first two-seater rolled-off the Saab assembly line in October 2005, making its maiden flight on November 11. The aircraft made its South African public debut on September 19 2006, just before the 2006 African Aerospace & Defence (AAD) exhibition.
The South African Gripens were customised to meet SAAF requirements, with a locally developed helmet-mounted sight, and a Grintek-developed electronic warfare (EW) system.
The first aircraft was assigned to the SAAF Test Flight Development Centre at Air Force Base Overberg in the Southern Cape, where it was used for the development and integration of South African avionics, weapons and systems.
The SAAF formally accepted its first Gripen D in April 2008 and two-seat deliveries continued until July 2009. The first two single-seat Gripen Cs were delivered on February 11 2010.
The SAAF Gripens’ primary air-to-air weapon was the Diehl BGT Defence IRIS-T short-range air-to-air missile. This was ordered as an interim weapon, pending the availability of the indigenous A-Darter, developed under Project Kamas, originally scheduled to enter service in 2014.
In fact, Denel began production of the A-Darter in late 2015, following successful trials from a SAAF Gripen, including a first launch in February 2015.
The SAAF Gripens flew combat air patrols and surveillance missions during the 2010 football World Cup (Operation Kwele), and border patrols in February 2011 and January 2012 (Operations Corona and Prosper).
In April 2013, under Operation Vimbezela, four Gripens were deployed to Kinshasa in the Democratic Republic of Congo to support South African forces after the African Union decided to reverse a rebel seizure of power in the Central African Republic. This was the first operational combat deployment of the SAAF Gripens.
Gripen pilot Captain Mohau Vundla, speaking at the recent rollout ceremony for the new Gripen E variant, then had just 35 hours on type but was already an enthusiastic advocate for the ‘awesome’ Gripen, which he described in the most glowing terms.
He had completed initial conversion, and was looking forward to more operationally focused training.
During his training, Vundla flew 180 hours on the Pilatus PC-7 Mk.II with the Central Flying School at AFB Langebaanweg, before moving on to the BAE Systems Hawk with 85 Combat Flying School at AFB Makhado (formerly known as AFB Louis Trichardt).
Vundla flew 360 hours on the Hawk, which he clearly enjoyed. “I loved the handling of the aircraft,” he said, “and the course taught me to be a fighter pilot, with lots of air warfare, lots of surface warfare.”
He attributed his ‘smooth’ conversion to the Gripen to his Hawk experience, highlighting the way in which the Hawk’s datalink and emulated radar had prepared him for handling the Gripen’s systems.
Vundla politely declined to discuss press reports about SAAF aircraft availability and serviceability.
Though the South African Gripens have, at times, suffered from a lack of support funding, Saab sources suggest that these kinds of issue have largely been resolved, not least as a result of the support contract signed in December 2013.