The airplane sits there with many if its fuselage panels open, its avionics bay exposed, lots of diagnostic and test cables running in all directions. Systems checks ahead of a ground run later that afternoon to give its brand new SATCOM system a torture test. It’s disassembled nose cone sits lashed to a trolley in front of it, and there up front, protected by a black dust proof casing, is the radar, the active electronically scanned array (AESA) RAVEN, a unique derivative of the Vixen 1000ES developed by Selex Galileo (formerly GEC Marconi), Saab Aerosystems and Saab Microwave (formerly Ericsson Microwave). The radar has just finished some ground routines, and test engineers are delighted with its performance. In one month, the radar will be tested in the sky. At the moment, it’s the only radar in the MMRCA sweepstakes that the makers have already declared they will release the source codes of.
Mattias Bergström, who heads the Gripen Demo team and is a Project Manager at Saab Aerosystems, gave me a detailed, first-time, walk about around the magnificent Gripen demo airplane. The pictures released by Saab that you’ve probably seen don’t really give it all away. If you really want to see how different this airplane is, you’ve got to see it up close. If India chooses the Gripen, it will be this platform, not the one I got to fly.
There’s been some good news for the Demo team. With the landing gear moved out from the central fuselage out sideways to the wing roots (to free up copious amounts of fuselage space for fuel), wing farings were needed on the leading edge roots to smoothen out the new gear bay. Engineers were almost certain that this would produce some highly avoidable drag. On the contrary, the Demo pilots have reported that the farings have actually contributed to overall aerodynamic performance.
I got a close look at the new landing gear assembly, a mechanical marvel modified and developed by APPH of UK. Not only will the new placement of the landing gear very nearly double the Gripen’s fuel capacity, but it does two more critical things. One, it frees up the central fuselage for a pylon. And two, the new configuration makes the Gripen even more conducive to landing on unprepared surfaces and short fields. It’s not like the Gripen needed any help performing with brilliance on limited runways, but here you have it — they’ve re-emphasised that by giving it even more power to deal with an airstrip that just may not be there. With a completely new braking system added, the Gripen Demo is by no means an under-the-bonnet upgrade. It is, in most senses, a new platform (nips and tucks to its airframe constitute a good deal of fabrication work) and a substantially superior airplane to the ones being flown today.
The GE-F414 engine that powers that Demo airplane is 7 centimetres longer than the GE F404 derivative (see photo) that powers the Gripen C/D, so there have been some modifications to the aft fuselage as well. The air intakes have also been widened. With added thrust, there’s increased MTOW as well. All in all, this is a very souped up Gripen that translates into the Gripen NG/IN.
The Gripen NG/IN will have a fully new advanced avionics architecture, a legacy break away from the system currently in use, and with a supremely enhanced flight data transmitter (FDT). Unlike the earlier Gripen, which enjoys only a limited EW/EW support role, the Gripen NG/IN is being developed to include EW as part of its swingrole profile spectrum, complete with jammer pod integration. With an all new Missile Approach Warner (MAW) and a Laser Warning System (LWS), the new airplane is fully new beneath the bonnet.
Lt Col Peter Nilsson, Vice President, Operational Capabilities, and an important man overseeing the capability bridge between the old and new Gripens at Saab is very excited about the prospect of an Indian Gripen. He says that the approach to the Gripen NG/IN has been so modular, and its architecture so open, that Saab is hoping to make the final aircraft configuration on offer a much more Indian jet that than the government is probably hoping for at this stage. Avionics, electronic systems and software, are major areas for options in the Gripen NG/IN. In fact, the people at Saab are hoping to shortly finalise a list of possible equipment that could be studied for integration.