Agile and intuitive, Saab’s new Gripen E jet is set to bolster Sweden’s defence capabilities and – if the buyers meet strict criteria – its coffers too.
Saab’s fighter centre, in the city of Linköping, south of Stockholm, is a sprawling complex comprising low-rise buildings and hangars in a mishmash of architectural styles, encircled by high-security fencing. Making your way into the company’s newly built fighter-jet simulator centre takes a while; access is carefully controlled and visitors are extensively monitored. Everyone is required to place all their electronic devices into a locker before entering. This is all necessary in order to test Saab’s latest fighter jet and flagship product: the Gripen E.
The “E” is the latest iteration of Saab’s premier fighter for the Swedish air force. Although the Gripen air-frame itself hasn’t changed much during the past 30 years, the E is indeed a major upgrade over previous editions. The “Echo”, as air-force personnel call the plane, is kitted out with more and better weapons and sensors but its main selling point is its brains: the avionics, software and system infrastructure that make it easily adaptable and upgradable with minimal lag time. It’s designed to keep up with the blinding speed at which technology is developing, as well as remaining relevant to the needs of modern warfare well into the future.
Inside the fighter-jet simulator centre, I sit down for monocle in the realistic cockpit as a dome overhead projects an image of the surrounding landscape. I take off from Linköping but soon the projected image changes to the Swiss Alps, where I can put the aircraft through its paces. What is most striking is just how easy the Gripen is to fly. Need to barrel roll upside-down in order to strafe the side of a mountain and avoid detection by the enemy? Not a problem. When it’s time to put the plane down on a small airstrip in a narrow valley, I land safely by simply aligning a few lines and arrows on the display screen.
The actual flying is designed to happen with a minimum of fuss so that the focus can be on gathering data and making quick and effective decisions
The fact that I could land the aircraft safely with no training is part of its selling point. Flying a fighter jet can be “a bit like driving a Formula 1 car but you also have to play [video game] Battlefield at the same time,” says Johan Segertoft, programme director for Gripen E and F (a two-seat version), and a chief architect of the new Gripen avionics. “And you have to win both the race and the game of Battlefield.” The Gripen E is an agile and capable fighter jet but the actual flying part is designed to happen with a minimum of fuss, so that the focus can be on gathering data and subsequently making quick and effective decisions.
“Seeing new signals, analysing them and changing the way that we work the weapon sensors and electronic warfare – that’s something that can make a big difference in war,” says Torgny Fälthammar, a colonel in Sweden’s air force and head of the Gripen programme. “You need to react very quickly to what you see out there in the real world. The Gripen Echo is designed to be on top of that problem.”
Marcus Wandt, Saab’s chief test pilot on the Gripen E programme, is an air-force veteran with experience in multiple fighter jets. One of Sweden’s top pilots, he also holds a master’s degree in engineering and artificial intelligence. I join him on the tarmac just as another of the Gripen E test fleet arrives back from a session over the Baltic. Wandt motions for me to put my fingers in my ears as the roaring aircraft parks up. He is smiling with what appears to be pride.
Wandt has been pivotal in fine-tuning the plane’s design alongside Segertoft. He says that it’s “really awesome to fly” but, more importantly, it is versatile. “It’s doing a lot of missions at the same time and that also creates a level of surprise or uncertainty for the adversary,” says Wandt. “If a Gripen takes off from a road base, [an adversary doesn’t know] whether it’s going for anti-shipping, air-to-air, air-to-ground... the same aircraft is doing everything. The pilots are doing everything. That’s really important.”
The technology onboard is not the most advanced computer science in the world but, placed within the strict regulatory framework of aerospace, it is revolutionary. It means that software applications within the Gripen systems can be made operational in less than a week, compared with, potentially, years on traditional designs such as the Lockheed Martin f35.
Saab made the decision to not pursue stealth. It’s expensive and involves trade-offs in the air-frame. Artificial intelligence is also making it increasingly possible for enemy sensors to quickly find a stealth aircraft. Instead, Saab has gone all in on electronic warfare and the kind of technology that will allow the Gripen to confuse enemy sensors, rather than trying to hide.
And whereas the Gripen doesn’t have the flash factor of fighters such as the f35, it’s a good deal cheaper to acquire and operate. Precise figures are closely guarded and comparisons can be difficult but there are estimates. The f35, for example, costs about €30,000 an hour to operate, taking into account maintenance. For the Gripen, one estimate put its cost per flight hour at as little as €4,000.
So it’s no surprise that the company sees a market for 4,500 planes like the Gripen E. But, according to Richard Smith, deputy head of sales, that number drops to about 1,000 if you only consider the countries that Saab can actually have as customers. This is because, as a Swedish company, Saab can’t sell to just anybody. Sweden technically has a ban on arms exports, yet there are exemptions for when that sale supports the country’s own defence capabilities. In practice, this means selling to countries that are partners and allies – or at the very minimum not serial human-rights abusers and/or run by despots. Sweden’s political position does hold the company back in this regard. But Saab has found that its state ties present opportunities too.
“Within the armed forces we saw signs of what was going on in Russia. That was part of what drove the requirements for the Gripen E”
Saab was formed after a strategic decision by Sweden in the 1930s to invest in homegrown military hardware at a time when other countries were refusing to export as war loomed. The state realised it would need to invest in becoming self-sufficient.
The same need exists today because of the increasingly shaky global picture of shifting alliances and, of course, a resurgent Russia. Colonel Fälthammar says that it was really the annexation of Crimea in Ukraine that woke Swedes up to the need to reinvest in its military capabilities. In December the Swedish parliament approved a 40 per cent hike in the annual defence budget to sek89bn (€8.7bn) by 2025.
“Within the armed forces we saw signs well before 2014 about what was going on in Russia. And that was part of what really drove the requirements for the Gripen E,” says Fälthammar. “You can’t rely on others all the time. You have to make sure that you set down your own requirements and you’re ready to finance and take that responsibility. We’re a small country, we are non-aligned and having a strategy built on hope is not a good idea.”
Driven by the desire to develop more powerful force multipliers, Saab has taken risks, backed by the Swedish state, on a number of technological leaps that have turned out to be very good bets. The company had a turnover of €3.5bn in 2020.
Here Saab walks a fine line: it is a private company but also a national security asset. It makes its own decisions but is continuously in discussion with government and military leaders, and it acts with Swedish national interests in mind. But Sweden’s domestic market is only so big; to stay at the forefront Saab also needs to be a viable business, making products that are competitive in the global defence market.
Although Sweden’s non-alignment policy means that Saab can’t simply sell to everyone, it also offers the company an attractive usp. Many nations view a Saab product as relatively baggage-free. Ordering a fighter jet from Sweden doesn’t necessarily signal a taking of sides or a joining of an alliance.
Saab would like to sell 400 of the Gripen E; it has sold 96 so far. A short but diverse list of countries have bought the earlier Gripen to date: the Czech Republic, Thailand, Hungary, South Africa and Sweden among them. The company is hoping to sell to Canada and India, and earlier this year made a pitch to Finland to not only sell them the aircraft but to support the two countries’ air forces in an even closer co-operation in defence against a potential Russian attack. It’s a move that most definitely serves Sweden’s national interests.
One of the most important deals for Saab came together, with Brazil. Not only has the Latin American nation bought the new Gripen Es, it will also be manufacturing them in Brazil. The deal represents one of the largest Swedish exports in history in monetary terms, with a value of $4.5bn (€3.8bn). And that was just for the first batch. Saab hopes that the deal will help it to branch out further into South America.
However the ongoing deals work out, Saab seems to be in a good place with the Gripen. It’s an unassuming aircraft that doesn’t shout for attention but packs a surprisingly powerful punch – much like Sweden itself. And its ongoing development, driven by the pressure to stay competitive against larger counterparts (whether that’s competing manufacturers or unfriendly nations), has the effect of keeping Swedish defence technology at the cutting edge.
“It’s simple and easy to use – scaling back everything that you don’t really need,” says Segertoft. “The essence of Gripen is very Swedish.”