Because fighters represent an extensive investment for governments, it is vital that they remain effective and operational throughout their entire time in service. That means they need to be adaptable 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 and is supposed to be at its best just as it is being phased out 40 years later.”
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. From the beginning, Gripen's platform has had a modular design that can be easily adapted, and used some technology that doesn't 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.
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 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, storage 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 price,” 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.
Knut Övrebö, Chief Engineer at Future Air Systems, Saab business area Aeronautics.
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.
Joins Saab’s test pilot from inside the Gripen cockpit to get the full experience and a sense of the extreme g-forces.