There’s nothing like being in the enemy’s line of fire to keep you on your toes. For Saab’s Aerial Target Services pilots, this definitely isn’t just any old flying job. Jonny Johansson, who has been with Saab since 1988, says: “If you love flying, this is the best job in the world.”
Manager, electronic warfare operator and chief pilot Henrik Landqvist is of a similar opinion: “I love the manoeuvres involved in flying. We don’t do autopilot; it’s not about simply flying from A to B, it’s about travelling back and forth to a military base or aircraft platform, carrying out whichever mission has been assigned. Often it’s about low-level flying, negotiating steep turns up to 60-degree angles of bank, large angles of attack… It’s like being a fighter pilot!”
Johansson and Landqvist are experts in electronic protection and electronic warfare. By emulating threats, they allow Saab’s air defence customers to carry out missile practice testing, evaluating the effectiveness of their ammunition systems.
A Saab flight crew comprises two pilots and a systems operator: sometimes in a Mitsubishi MU-2, sometimes in a Learjet.
It is doubtless the razor-sharp skills of these seasoned airmen that help to make Saab such a solid, credible partner. Today, Saab is mostly working with the Swedish defence forces, but their collaborative multi-national assignments might involve the military in other Nordic countries or the rest of Europe.
“We are participating in an increasing number of larger-scale exercises, providing special services to a number of nations simultaneously,” says Landqvist. “This makes for ever more complex missions involving multiple ships, various ground stations and often a whole aircraft squadron, which requires a lot of careful planning.”
They are away on different missions for three to four days at a time – wherever their clients need them to be. Sometimes they are being shot at from a naval vessel, sometimes they act as an aggressor flight, trying to “bomb” a target in the harbour.
Still, they don’t operate in any war zone. This is what they call the twilight zone, where there is a heightened situational awareness of the threat of a terrorist or military attack.
They always receive a detailed brief about half a year in advance of every mission so they understand their role within a big exercise.
“When you’re dealing with the defence sector, the expectations are high and it’s essential to come prepared,” says Johansson. “They demand high-precision, effective training, and at Saab we pride ourselves on a top-notch, timely delivery.
Today’s missions address the whole chain of command: not just one soldier or one particular unit. Aerial Target Services are just one piece of an enormous puzzle, with others training the forces in submarine hunting, on-board fire protection and so on…
“Think of a wind sock on the end of a 3,000- to 5,000-metre-long cable,” Landqvist says, describing the aerial targets they tow for weapons operator training. A bright orange tubular cloth, each target is used in air and ground anti-aircraft gunnery practice, flying about 15,000 feet behind and 1,000 feet below the aircraft. Sometimes two targets are in order.
Travelling at 150-300 knots, the plane moves into the firing line, and using a miss distance indicator (MDI), the operator senses how close the bullets or missiles get. “When the ‘enemy’ hits a target, we hear the cheers on the radio,” says Landqvist. “Then we land the plane and start all over again.”
Disrupting, blocking or jamming enemy radar signals and targeting systems is also their speciality, impairing the ability of radar systems to accurately detect and depict objects in the operational environment. Jamming is used to deliberately interfere with communications, mislead the enemy and disrupt control of a battle.
Safety top of mind
The work is extremely intense, so they never hesitate to let the client know if they need to take a break.
“After all, we’re only human. It would be foolish to compromise safety by not resting when we need to. And we always stop flying if there is a thunderstorm, too much ice or rain. Safety always comes first.”
It’s by keeping busy that they maintain the highest level of safety. “The more missions we complete, the more proficient we become,” says Johansson. “That’s why we’re pleased that we are being called on so much for our services.”
Trust and understanding
Maintaining a close professional relationship with the client and an open dialogue based on trust and respect is absolutely essential. “We have to understand the unit we are flying for, and they also have to trust our judgement,” says Landqvist. “It all boils down to good communication, effective collaboration, and honest feedback. That way, we have the opportunity to adopt a different approach for the next assignment if necessary.”
“Occasionally a third party might become involved in a mission and express concern over our involvement. Then we have to convince them that we’re not there to find out about their classified systems, but rather to show them how good our open system is.”