While there are reports that the Philippine Air Force (PhAF) favors the JAS-39 Gripen as its next Multi-Role Fighter (MRF), one possible showstopper in terms of the PhAF getting it would be the fact that its latest version, the JAS-39E/F Gripen will not be available for delivery until 2018, which is a full 5 years from the time of this writing. Initially I thought that would be enough time for the PhAF to finally get its FA-50 Golden Eagle Lead In-Fighter Trainer and have operational use of that aircraft and be ready for the Gripen E, but it seems the PhAF might want to get their MRFs sooner.
The sense of urgency is understandable because of the increasing belligerence of China in terms of turning the South China Sea into its own, personal lake. Hence, rumors have been floating around that aside from the Gripen E, the PhAF might also consider the F-16 as its next MRF.
The F-16 is officially known as the “Fighting Falcon” by the United States Air Force (USAF), but it has been known to its pilots as the “Viper” because when it first came out, it reminded them of the “Colonial Viper” fighter space craft in the TV series, “Battlestar Galactica”. There are dozens of different versions of the aircraft, so many it almost boggles the mind to keep track of all of them. So my initial question if we are going to get the F-16 is which version will we be getting?
It is possible we will be getting one of the general versions used by the United States Air Force (USAF) for easier logistics and lower cost. The different versions in the United States inventory are indicated by “Blocks”, the higher the number, the newer the version, and the latest version is the “Block 50/52+”. There is an even more advanced version, the “Block 60” aircraft, but this has been bought by only 1 country so far, the United Arab Emirates. The Block 60 seems to be significantly more costly than the Block 50/52+ by virtue of its more advanced avionics, particularly in the use of an Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) radar. The Block 50/52+ plus, on the other hand, has been bought by around half a dozen air forces around the world.
With this in mind, I do hope that if we do get the F-16, it will be at least be the Block 50/52+ version. It is possible though that due to costs, we might be getting even lower version aircrafts with lower capabilities, which would be quite unfortunate indeed. At any rate, let us just assume for now that we will at least get the Block 50/52+ version.
It’s hard not to compare the Gripen to the Viper as the PhAF could end up owning one of them as it’s next MRF, hence let us make a general comparison of the two. The F-16 is no doubt it is one of the most popular fighter aircraft of its time, but it is an old design, having first flown 39 years ago in 1974. In contrast, the JAS-39 first flew in 1988, more than 1 1/2 decade after the F-16. Because of this, the Gripen do hold certain inherrent advantages to the Viper.
One advantage is that the Gripen has a lower Radar Cross Section (RCS) profile than the Viper. The Gripen per se is NOT a stealthy aircraft, but having been designed at a time when the first operational Stealth aircraft in the F-117 Nighthawk was publicly introduced, the designers definitely tried to incorporate stealth designs to it as much as possible without compromising performance. As a result, the Gripen has a very low RCS of only 0.1m^2.
On the other hand, the F-16 was designed at a time when stealth technology barely an ideas, hence no stealth aspect was incorporated into its design. There were attempts to make it more stealthy in the latter versions, especially in terms of its inlet design, but they can only do so much without making a major redesign of the entire aircraft. So while it is a relatively small aircraft, the RCS of the Block 50/52 aircrafts are estimated to be at 1.2m^2, which is approximately 12 times that of the Gripen.
Here the Gripen has an advantage, meaning it will always be harder to detect compared to the Viper, and vice versa, the Viper will always be easier to detect than the Gripen for the same radar technology and power output.
Note that I will be comparing the latest Gripen model, the JAS-39E known as the “Gripen E” to the F-16C Block 50/52+ Viper. In terms of avionics, these 2 aircrafts seem to be evenly matched. They both have Glass Cockpits, Helmet Mounted Sights, Weapons Data Link, etc., except for one, and that is the radar. The Gripen E is equipped with an Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) radar, while the Viper is equipped with a previous generation technology Pulse Doppler (PD) Radar.
There is a huge difference between the PD radar and AESA technology, which is why most countries are stumbling all over themselves to develop their own AESA radars, especially the Chinese and the Russians. The AESA radar has many inherrent and distinct advantages over older radar technologies, like reliability, for example. With no moving parts, an AESA radar is deemed to be at least 20x more reliable than traditional radars. It generates better radar picture resolutions, allowing better detection rates, especially against ground targets.
It has limited Electronic Counter Measure (ECM) capability, and is also harder to detect with its Low Probability of Intercept (LPI) signal generation capability. In short, AESA radar is basically a “wonder” radar, and the Gripen E having it means a SIGNIFICANT advantage over the Viper Block 50/52+.
(End of Part One)
– General Dynamics F-16 Fighting Falcon, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/General_Dynamics_F-16_Fighting_Falcon
– Saab JAS 39 Gripen, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saab_JAS_39_Gripen
– THE GREAT RADAR RACE: AESA DEVELOPMENT IN HIGH GEAR, http://aviationintel.com/the-great-radar-race-aesa-development-in-high-gear/