Saab: The Gripen Smart Support Solution

The Gripen is a unique fighter system, bringing a perfect balance between performance and cost-efficiency. Throughout its design and construction, Saab has ensured that the Gripen is easy to service and repair, making it possible to offer moderate operational and maintenance costs that no other aircraft comes close to matching. 

The genesis of Gripen’s smart support solution dates back more than 80 years, and all started back in 1937 when it was clear that Europe was on the brink of a major conflict. Although Sweden,  a small neutral country was at peace for more than a century,  its government and industry decided to prepare for the worst. Saab was founded with the mission to secure the nation’s supply of military aircraft as part of its drive to maintain national security and sovereignty.

Being a country with small and very limited resources, but at the same time placed in a strategic location and hence vulnerable, it soon became apparent that something very special was required to mitigate the threats but within available resource limits. By applying smart and innovative thinking, the Swedish Government its defence forces and Saab managed evolve basic requirements that would apply to all aircraft designed and produced, these requirements being as they were in 1937.

Essentially,  the approach was that the aircraft be able to operate from regular Swedish roads with a straight length of at least 1 km, so establishing ‘secret’ road bases. This meant that, in case of war, it was possible to spread the operations to a large number of locations all over the country, rather than being confined to known air bases. Such a spread out made it almost impossible for an enemy to take the air force out of the war equation.

Also, the aircraft should be so easy to maintain and that maintenance could be done by a small number of conscript mechanics with only one certified technician. Finally, the aircraft should allow for very fast air-to-air turn-arounds on the road bases as well as a very quick engine replacement if required. After the final decision to implement the road base system in the 1950s, the road network in Sweden was adapted to meet such requirements.

Efficient support solution

During years of the Cold War, Sweden felt threatened by the Warsaw Pact countries, and the  country needed an aircraft that could outperform and out manoeuvere a larger force of contemporary fighters. Northern Sweden is an unforgiving land with long, freezing winters and largely unpopulated areas, presenting a harsh environment in which to operate an aircraft : yet it was this place that gave birth to the Gripen : defending  such vast areas required a fighter that could perform air-to-air, air-to-surface and reconnaissance missions. 

Sweden’s relatively small defence budget and the tough conditions for which the Gripen was designed, led Saab to make the fighter as efficient as possible. A fundamental aspect of this approach is Gripen’s modular and open avionics architecture and efficient maintainability, which enables the integration of off-the-shelf products wherever possible, as well as continuous development of new functions to meet future needs. 

The decision to develop Gripen was taken in 1982, and its first flight performed in 1988. With its unstable design and equipped with a fly-by wire system, increased use of composites and other state of the art technology, this was a completely different fighter compared to its predecessors. The basic maintainability and road base requirements were however the same, and the unique support solution was hence woven into its design from the very beginning and eventually this became inherent with the system.

Gripen requires a minimum of resources

Gripen’s support system allows for a very low logistic footprint. It comes with extremely efficient special to type multi-functional tools and other smart equipment to make sure that availability is maximized at all times. All its equipment is also deployable in remote areas. For aerial engagement, turnaround, including refueling and rearming, is done in less than ten minutes using only one technician and five conscript mechanics, with only ten weeks of training necessary.

As an example,  two Gripens on a two week outstation detachment, require only that equipment which fits into  a standard 20 feet container. Change of complex avionics (e.g. the radar) or an engine replacement can be carried out within one hour, with no fixed installations needed. The auxiliary power unit makes the Gripen self-sufficient for startups, and the aircraft can land or take-off using a road strip of 800x16 m rather than an average runway of 2,400x45 m. Finally, the Gripen is fully NATO compatible.