GripenfightersThe Swedes who build the Gripen fighter are known for being practical, producing advanced fighters that are relatively cheap (at least compared to almost everyone else).

At the Paris Air Show the Gripen folks, SaaB Group. very deliberately floated an interesting idea. Since the Gripen uses fly-by-wire technology and advanced avionics which virtually eliminate the need for a pilot during normal flight, why not take the software to the next step and turn the fighters into optionally manned aircraft that can be controlled by a pilot in another Gripen.

The goal, as uttered in Paris by SAAB CEO Håkan Buskhe, would be to provide Europe with a cheaper intelligence, reconnaissance and surveillance (ISR) platform. But there appears to be more to it. I spoke with a Gripen source at the show who went much further. He said one of the main uses would be for a Gripen pilot in a manned plane to accompany and guide a group of unmanned aircraft when necessary, making it much cheaper to ferry planes from point A to point B. Also, since the Gripen’s support system already exists countries would not have to develop a separate maintenance system with its own parts, which could be a major draw for some countries.

The Gripen source said that SAAB floated the idea at the show to gauge the willingness of European aviation authorities and the general public to accept drones operating in European airspace and going into operations such as Mali, where France just didn’t have enough ISR assets.

The larger picture here is that Europe’s attempts to build medium altitude, long endurance (MALE) UAVs are foundering. Germany dropped its Global Hawk buy, alarmed by the costs.

Saab is one of six European partners who are building the very cool looking nEUROn combat UAV (think UCLASS). France’s Dassault Aviation leads the effort.

If you want some idea just how hungry some in Europe are for ISR capabilities — Germany notwithstanding — consider that France wants to buy at least two Reapers from us to use in Mali. That will probably be part of a larger $1.5 billion buy of as many as 16 Reapers, which was disclosed June 28 in a Foreign Military Sales notification to Congress.

A French source told me the last day of the Paris Air Show this deal was in the works but I dropped the ball. My understanding is that these two Reapers will be bought. The rest of the deal is much less certain. France and three of Europe’s biggest defense companies, EADS, Dassault and Finmeccanica want to build a MALE system. France wants it so they don’t have to mess with ITAR and American arms export licensing and to develop their own version of what everyone agrees is a key capability for the battlefield. The companies want to guarantee their presence in a key market. And, as always in Europe, high paying, high tech jobs are a key draw for everyone.

That takes us back to Gripen. In their open letter virtually begging to build a MALE system,  the three companies said “European sovereignty and independence in the management of information and intelligence would be guaranteed,” They also said they would design in the aircraft technologies that would answer the problem that has bedeviled drone makers in Europe and in the US — the ability to convince policymakers that they are safe flying around in the same airspace as civilian planes with lots of people sitting in them. The Gripen solution, with a pilot on the scene able to control the unmanned aircraft, might well meet that need.

Meanwhile, the Israelis still hope to sell France some of its Herons, which were on display almost directly across from the French Defense Ministry at the air show.


  • William McDill

    The benefits of an unmanned fighter are HUGE! As long ago as the ’60s the concept of head-end steering made missiles enormously more maneuverable than airplanes. Take the human out of the physical loop with his/her 6 G limitation and you could throw a fighter around in the sky up to the physical limit of your systems- and considering we can put vehicles on Titan, Venus and into the Jovian atmosphere, the limits are pretty high. With our video game experience and our various autonomous flight systems, I think a ultra high performance fighter could be built quickly and (relatively) cheaply

    • Colin Clark

      The trick is making it autonomous enough to engage in combat. That’s not too hard for long-distance strikes. But you seem to be talking about traditional dogfights, which hardly ever happen any more. A very senior former Air Force official recently told an F-35 test pilot that if they are engaging in a dogfight then they are likely to be dead. The point is that fifth generation aircraft are designed to strike from afar. Pulling lots of Gs should only be done to avoid SAMs and air to air missiles, which is something UAVs can do very well.

      • PolicyWonk

        Isn’t it the case that the flight control SW in existing aircraft is designed to prevent the pilot from attempting maneuvers that would cause him/her to black out (and potentially kill themselves)?
        Our fighter aircraft are designed to be inherently unstable, which is what gives them their maneuverability. Hence – in theory, an F-16 should be able to do a lot more if the human element is removed. Then its down to the software (and willingness to tolerate more wear/tear on the airframe).
        I’ve read elsewhere that the SW guys believe they could take out a human pilot without much difficulty (a concept the USAF fighter mafia, etc., is loath to test).
        Or, am I missing something?

  • Lop_Eared_Galoot

    I smell a rat.

    First Europe wants the Eurohawk to do everything but drop the kids off at school in the morning as both an Active RF, Optical and ELINT driven aperture platform. And then they -insist- that it be done with European systems, despite the fact that the primary AGS mission, for which the RQ-4 is an optimal solution, requires the ZPY-2 because none of their systems do the job.

    Then, with the interfaces spread out before them like so many sheep entrails, ‘the future becomes clearer': Let’s steal it. Make our own HALE. Sell it to the world. Yeah, yeah, that’s the ticket. Nawt.

    The sad part being that there are three, really easy, ways to have the RQ-4 meet all controlled airspace safety requirements:

    1. Operate from an isolated coastal region (Spain or Southern France come to mind) and run them out to a SUA during the 0D30 period when NO ONE ELSE IS FLYING.

    2. Have the RQ-4 hold hands with a bizjets TCAS as it does it’s Condor thing at 2,500fpm up to 45,000ft. That’s 20 minutes people. Even Euro ATC can surely find some hole in the sky sufficiently large to push a 5 mile helix through for a third of an hour. Especially since you won’t be finding many Pelicans, Cessnas or A380s above 35K. Not close to the coast.

    3. _Buy_ what you said you wanted in the ITT/Exelis ABSAA radar. It’s ready. It works.

    Clear the necessary gear and _be done_.

    No, I’m pretty sure this is about industrial politics and NIH greed. You put your eyeprints all over our tech and then walk away, always intending to build your own.

    Having said that, the JAS-39 is not even in the same league as the RQ-4 and is also not functionally suitable as a UCAV.

    In a nutshell, the JAS-39 is the Me-109 of the modern fighter world. With a 5,500lb internal fuel load it has a similar 45minutes or 150nm radius ‘doing fighter things’ (which require A/B).

    Remove all burner use and add a LITENING III pod plus two 400 gallon tanks with another 5,400lbs of fuel at the cost of only two, 1,500lb, outboard A2G munitions pylons remaining and you still only get about 500nm of straight out and back again, sans any defensive response.



    Yet the JAS-39 has an RCS the size of a barn door in this configuration and so you SHOULD expect a defensive response. Indeed, the entire notion of /why/ you would have an unmanned combat aircraft must first and foremost be based on the question of whether you want to expose a pilot to threats (DEWS and Hunting Missiles) he cannot survive if engaged by.

    With the secondary roles of long endurance CAS-stack in support of missions like Mali and Afghanistan only secondarily considered.

    Which is where the UCAV really comes into it’s own. Because it provides upwards of three times the range from twice the internal fuel (X-45C was around 12-14,000lbs of fuel, X-47B may be up to 26,000lbs) and _three quarters the fuselage length_.

    That’s right. A JAS-39D is roughly 48ft long. An X-47B is 38ft.

    Once you abandon the need for a long compression path inlet and expansion path burner duct and a rigid fuselage tube to contain both, the structural penalties you pay go away. Of course the total enclosed area is still enormous because that’s the nature of a flying wing. But the total carry through penalty as complex systems design goes away completely.

    Which is why the UCLASS will likely have a radius of something like 2,100nm (comparitively, the J-UCAS spec was was for 3hrs at 1,100nm, infinitely renewable by automated aerial refueling, to the depth of the engine oil tank).

    In terms of penetrability, it should also be noted that the UCAV has a much narrower set of bowtie aspect deflects, basically centered on an ‘><' pattern over it's elongated wintips, which a threat radar has a naturally higher flash-on detection threshold chance of picking up a return from. This provides them, if not a lower RCS overall then certainly a lower -all round- RCS vulnerability, compared to manned platforms which, again, pay a terrible price for agility in the form of an Empennage and compromised exhaust system.

    Again, one can only emphasize that these aircraft are _not_ designed as 'fighters' in the sense that they are able to quickly enter and exit threat airspace from multiple approach lanes for a combined BOTOT release of standoff weapons, using supersonic acceleration to make up for slight differences in IP arrival times.

    And because of this they are also not self supporting to the extent an equivalent number of manned jets would be (lack the sensors and the weapons as much as the physical performance)/

    Thus UCAVs create a fruther condition where the survivability of the manned combat controller airframe (at such extremes of operational depth as they can readily achieve) would be equally compromised.

    Given you know that that hounds precede the hunters, let the UCAVs fly on buy, off an longwave EWR cue. Then light up the manned jet, even an F-22, with your S400 Gravestone radar as it follows behind them and with a flurry of 9m96, high energy, ERINT like, terminal interceptors launched from closeaboard, you destroy the functional command and control integrity (presumably via the AI radar serving as a high power, high datarate, secure datalink modem) of the formation as a whole.

    Now imagine all of this happening at ranges under 300nm where the nominal 'UCAVs' are full signature jets.

    On the 1-to-Stupid scale, the only comparison I can make for such a desperate act would be the Luftwaffe concept of Misteln and Pulkzerstorer at the end of WWII.


    UCAVs offer many and sundry advantages over manned airpower. Some of which the Europeans, who insist on maintaining, separate military forces and defense industrial bases, must surely be contemplating as they step to their first independent expeditionary operations.

    1. They offer conventional takeoff and landing.

    Whether that be a runway or a carrier, the ability to sustain flightspeeds in the landing circuit which are greater than the maximum of an MQ-1/9 translates to a nice, flat, firm landing, regardless of crosswinds. We lost inordinate numbers of A-UAVs in SWA simply because they were foam core constructed with thin composite skins in the form of giant sailplanes. Landing and Takeoff are among the most flight critical of actions in an entire mission.

    2. They radically reduce training as O&M peacetime costs.

    Which means that when war -does- come, you are not left with either/or choices on sustaining readiness to deploy or combat operations in the active theater. Where even a lightweight fighter like the Gripen will post CPFH figures in the range of 5,000 dollars per flight hour and a pilot needs a _minimum_ of 20 hours per month, per mission set, to remain current, the ability to remove all but exercise (as tactics and equipment development) training from an Air Force's flying schedule would radically alter it's economic drain upon it's host nation's GDP.

    3. Persistence And Effectivness.

    Again, compared to an MQ-1 which may take 2-3 hours to transit a country to a requested mission coverage or an MQ-9 which is at least half that, a 300-400 knot jet cannot be beat for providing rapid cross coverage of multiple AOIs, using CCD as 'Coherent Change Detection' algorithms to filter mass video memory 'frames' before cuing an MCS/GCS operator as to a potential hotspot. This, by itself allows a single ground station operator to maintain multiple strings of UCAVs in running route coverage of multiple surveillance objectives with random dwell and refresh intervals. While each route pattern may be akin to turning on a flashlight pointed at one's feet, the mosaic build is sufficient to provide excellent total coverage (and with systems like ARGUS-IR will get infinitely better as a function of total product intake). All because of jet speeds. Yet it is the truth that combat is 90% santization of nothing and 10% terror of the sudden (think ASW) that defines the UCAVs ability to -combine- these speeds with fewer aircraft and controllers than would be otherwise needed. Because they are also sipping fuel in low drag airframes as opposed to gulping it in jets festooned with pods and tanks and racks of ordnance. All of which reflects on the total number of jets you need vs. the total number of manned-equivalent 'sorties' they replace. Simply because robots only really get 'tired' when they burn through the oil in their engine sumps.

    If you want to close the kill chain on someone, whether that be a high intensity threat that appears to be advancing everywhere. Or an OOTW one where he's riding in on a mule on a border a 1,000nm around, you _have to be there_ before any other single factor matters. And real UCAVs give that option, by design. Converted fighters don't.

    That is why you will likely never see an unmanned JAS-39 or F-15/16. If you need fighter performance (in say the Homeland Security ADIZ mission) you might as well keep the jock by his jet. Or replace them both with a SAM system and a cabin camera.


  • Don Bacon

    Appearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Admiral Mullen said that Lockheed Martin’s Joint Strike Fighter now being built could be the last manned fighter jet before robotic planes take over that role.

    “I mean, there are those that see JSF as the last manned fighter,” Mullen said of the F-35. “I’m one that’s inclined to believe that.”–Washington (AFP) May 14, 2009

  • Alan

    Here’s a better pic of an unmanned Gripen:

  • Mehmet Emre

    I don’t think it’s a good idea to turn manned Gripens into unmanned aircrafts. It’d better be of small size for more maneuverability. Meantime you can have a look at some great Gripen videos :