The last couple of years, there has been reports that the Philippine Air Force (PhAF) want the Saab JAS-39 Gripen as its next Multi-Role Fighter (MRF) if ever the Philippines will finally get to buy an MRF. This conclusion seems to have come from the evaluations of various PhAF pilots who have gone out and flown various aircrafts like the Gripen, Mig-29 and F-16 in the past. Nothing is final yet as of this writing, of course, as we still haven’t even finalized the purchase of the FA-50 Lead-In Fighter Trainer (LIFT). However, I thought it was time to take a closer look at the Gripen that the PhAF is leaning towards getting.
There are basically 3 OPERATIONAL types of the Gripen, the first is the JAS-39A/B version. This were the first versions of this model introduced back in 1996. The next model type is the JAS-39C/D version introduced in 2007 with updated Aviation Electronics (Avionics), Helmet Mounted Sight, in-flight refuelling capability and other minor improvements.
The latest model type is the JAS-39E/F version introduced in 2010, and offers a SIGNIFICANT improvement over the previous models. For one it is equipped with a more powerful engine enabling it to go into “Supercruise” (cruise at supersonic speed even without using afterburners) when armed with a light load. It has 40% more fuel capacity enabling it to have significant range improvement; And most importantly it has a much more advanced avionics systems that enable it to compete with even the best aircrafts in operation today.
As of now this version is not operational yet, but prototypes are already available and actively proving the feasibility of the model, and orders from Sweden and Switzerland for this particular model has already been made with production deliveries scheduled to start in 2018. This gives just about enough time for the PhAF to prepare for this version of the Gripen as by then the FA-50s will already have been delivered and flown by them.
One of the most important aspects of modern air combat for me is what I call the “Radar Battle”. Aircrafts use radar to “see” each other well beyond the visual range, and the first one to do so will have the significant advantage because then he can track and fire his missile first. Now as far as this aspect is concerned, the Gripen does have some important qualities that allow it to excel in this regard against other equally modern fighters out there right now.
One of the most advanced if not the most advanced type of radar in operation right now is called an “AESA” Radar, short for “Active Electronically Scanned Array”. What makes this type of radar special is its STEALTH qualities. Its like this: Radars when turned on allow aircrafts to detect other aircrafts, but at the same time it also allows other aircrafts to detect that radar signal to get the transmitting aircraft’s position and altitude.
This similar to using flashlights in a dark room: Turning on the flashlight will allow you to see the other person in the room, but at the same time it also tells the other person where you are exactly in the room because he can see where the light source is coming from. An AESA radar is superior because it allows detection and tracking of other aircrafts, but at the same time doesn’t give away its position easily that other aircraft. It does this by spreading its emissions over a wide frequency, making it hard to detect over the natural background radiation “noise”.
It is because of this stealth aspect that an AESA radar is now the gold standard for radar systems. Any radar system using a lesser technology will have a significant disadvantage to one using an AESA radar, and the JAS-39E/F does use this technology on its PS-05/A Radar.
As of NOW, or this year, 2013, China does NOT have any aircraft in operation yet with an AESA Radar, not even their most advanced fighters like the SU-30MKK or Shenyang J-11. However, plans to put this technology on their operational aircrafts are in place, and there are prototypes of various aircrafts with this type of radar already available. By 2018, when the JAS-39E/F Gripens are going to be delivered, I expect China to make even more significant strides in the use of this radar. HOWEVER, western technology has always been better compared to Chinese technology in general, so even if they do put AESA radars on their aircrafts, I still expect the JAS-39E/F and its AESA radar to have a slight advantage in terms of capability and reliability overall.
‘Weapons Data Link’
Another advanced technology that Saab is boasting of for the JAS-39E/F is that it has the most advanced Weapons Data Link in the world right now. A Weapons Data Link (WDL) is the ability of one aircraft to share targetting information to other aircrafts at the same time. This has significant tactical advantage in combat in terms of stealth, and deception.
Having a WDL means not all of the aircrafts in a formation needs to turn on their radar to detect and track their opponents. This means significantly less signals being sent out that could be intercepted, making for a “quieter” and stealthier flight as only one aircraft can use his radar and the rest of the aircrafts can “see” what that single radar sees. Combined with the AESA radar’s stealth capabilities, this makes a flight of Gripens even more stealthier and formidable.
If a flight of Gripens have Airborne Early Detection and Warning (AEDW) support and is data-linked to that aircraft, they may not even use their own radars at all and just rely on the AEDW’s radar targetting information to try to shoot their opponents down.
Another aspect of this WDL capability is that even if it is detected, the enemy still won’t be able to determine the number of aircraft present based on that detected signal since only one aircraft is operating its radar system. It may get targetting information for that one aircraft, but not for the rest of the flight. And even if the detected aircraft is shot down, another Gripen can just activate its radar and start sharing information.
China’s fighter aircrafts do have data-link capability, especially with their interceptors. But the ones known best pertains mostly to Ground Radar-to-Aircraft intercept missions, and not the Weapons Data Link between individual aircrafts as described above. The exact WDL capability of Chinese aircrafts is unknown, but I would assume it to be currently INFERIOR to what western aircrafts have. This is China relies a lot on Russia for modern aircraft technology, and as far as I know Russia prohibits the inclusion of data link technology on all of their export aircrafts. This means China will have to rely on their own to produce theirs, and so far technologically they have generally been behind the west or Russia. If so, then that is one area the Gripen will have a significant advantage over China’s modern fighters.
(End of Part One)
– Saab JAS-39 gripen, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gripen
– Active Electronically Scanned Array, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/AESA
– List of active Chinese military aircraft, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_active_Chinese_military_aircraft
– Situation Awareness in Air Combat, http://www.users.globalnet.co.uk/~dheb/2300/Articles/PG/PGSA.htm