RONNEBY’s GRIPENs

Swe­den’s No. 171 Squadron and its JAS 39 fighters

Vayu Aerospace and Defence - - News - Stefan De­graef and Ed­win Bor­re­mans

On 17 Septem­ber 2014, two Sukhoi Su-24 fighter-bombers (NATO re­port­ing name: Fencer) op­er­at­ing out of the Rus­sian mil­i­tary en­clave of Kalin­ingrad vi­o­lated Swedish airspace close to the is­land of Öland in the Baltic Sea, hav­ing pre­vi­ously skimmed Pol­ish in­ter­na­tional wa­ters at low level. Al­though the air­craft flew only about one kilo­me­tre in­side Swedish airspace for around 30 sec­onds, the Swedish For­eign Min­istry and Gov­ern­ment viewed the in­ci­dent as the “most se­ri­ous” Rus­sian vi­o­la­tion of Swedish airspace in eight years.

In re­sponse to in­creas­ing air ac­tiv­ity by Rus­sian Aero­space Forces in the Baltic area and the large num­ber of air polic­ing mis­sions flown by NATO’s Baltic Air Polic­ing fighters based in Lithua­nia and Es­to­nia, as well as the Fin­nish and Swedish Air Forces, the Flyg­vap­net (Swedish Air Force) then de­ployed two JAS 39C Gripens to Visby Air­port on Got­land, Swe­den’s largest is­land in the Baltic Sea. On 28 Oc­to­ber 2014 a large Rus­sian for­ma­tion, con­sist­ing of two MiG-31s, Su-34s, one Su-27 and two Su-24s, tran­sited over the Baltic Sea to Kalin­ingrad. Al­though a flight plan had been filed and all air­craft used their transpon­ders in ac­cor­dance with in­ter­na­tional reg­u­la­tions, no ra­dio con­tact could be es­tab­lished with the tran­sit­ing air­craft, prompt­ing im­me­di­ate re­sponse by NATO BAP fighters and var­i­ous Scan­di­na­vian and Baltic air forces. Fi­nally, in late Oc­to­ber, the sus­pected pres­ence of an uniden­ti­fied for­eign un­der­wa­ter ob­ject in the Stock­holm’s Kan­holms­f­jar­den ar­chi­pel­ago trig­gered a ‘full re­source’ search by the Swedish Navy, com­bined with the cre­ation of a ‘no fly zone’ over the search area, clearly il­lus­trat­ing Swe­den’s un­ease with the ‘ res­ur­rected’ Cold War- style mil­i­tary ten­sions over the Baltic Sea. One of Swe­den’s main as­sets to de­ter for­eign provo­ca­tion is a ca­pa­ble – but grad­u­ally down­sized – air force, fly­ing Saab JAS 39 Gripen fighters with four op­er­a­tional fighter squadrons based at Luleå-Kal­lax (in the north) and Ronneby-Kallinge (in the south).

Since 2005, 171 Squadron, later joined by the co-lo­cated 172 Squadron, op­er­ates Swe­den’s most- mod­ern JAS 39C/ D Gripen as part of F17 ‘Blekinge Flygflot­tilj’ (Blekinge Wing) at Ronneby-Kallinge air base in the prov­ince of Blekinge.

The Cold War, ‘Peace Div­i­dend’ and multi­na­tional op­er­a­tions

Be­ing neu­tral dur­ing World War II, the Swedish Air Force de­vel­oped into a unique but pow­er­ful fight­ing force dur­ing the post-war era. In the six­ties the Swedish Air Force had some fifty front­line squadrons, dis­persed all over Swe­den and equipped with a large num­ber of do­mes­ti­cally de­signed and man­u­fac­tured fighter air­craft. Gen­er­a­tions of Saab air­craft (J32 Lansen, J35 Draken and J37 Viggen) thun­dered over Swedish skies, as part of a mod­ern fight­ing force able to de­ter any for­eign ag­gres­sion. If needed, all squadrons and their fighter, ground- at­tack and re­con­nais­sance jets would leave their peace­time bases to ‘blend into’ the Swedish coun­try­side, de­ploy­ing to and op­er­at­ing out of re­serve air­bases and high­way airstrips, well masked by the wooded coun­try­side.

With tra­di­tion­ally friendly re­la­tions among its Scan­di­na­vian and NATO neigh­bours, Swedish mil­i­tary at­ten­tion was fo­cused on the east, con­fronted with a size­able and pow­er­ful Soviet and War­saw Pact air and sea ca­pa­bil­ity on the east­ern

shores of the Baltic Sea. This mil­i­tary in­ter­est proved to be mu­tu­ally im­por­tant, il­lus­trated by the in­fa­mous Oc­to­ber 1981 ‘ Whiskey on the Rocks’ in­ci­dent, in which a Soviet Whiskey- class diesel-elec­tric sub­ma­rine, likely on a sur­veil­lance mis­sion, ran aground some two kilo­me­tres from the Swedish Navy’s main base at Karl­skrona (close to Ronneby), well within Swedish ter­ri­to­rial wa­ters.

Air ag­gres­sions from the east were sim­u­lated by large num­ber of Saab Sk60 train­ers, trans­formed dur­ing ex­er­cises into light at­tack air­craft, fly­ing halfway into the Baltic Sea be­fore turn­ing back to the Swedish home­land to test re­sponses of var­i­ous air de­fence as­sets (the air op­er­a­tions cen­tre, ground based radars and fighter units). Fully aware that quick re­sponse and over­all sit­u­a­tion aware­ness was vi­tal to de­tect and de­stroy pos­si­ble (air) threats, the Swedish Air Force quickly de­vel­oped tac­ti­cal ground-based and air­borne datalink sys­tems.

The end of the Cold War, de­fu­sion of mil­i­tary ten­sion in the Baltic area af­ter the in­de­pen­dence of the Baltic States, and the huge fi­nan­cial ‘Peace Div­i­dend,’ trig­gered by mil­i­tary spend­ing cut­backs all over the world, saw a pro­gres­sive de­crease in the over­all size of the Swedish Armed Forces.

Nu­mer­ous air bases and their ten­ant wings were dis­banded and a large num­ber of re­serve-bases were de-ac­ti­vated. While ini­tial plans were for five fighter wings (F4, F7, F10, F17 and F21) to re­ceive Swe­den’s last Cold War fighter, the Saab Gripen, even­tu­ally only two op­er­a­tional wings (F17 and F21) and one train­ing wing (F7 at Såtenäs) would op­er­ate these air­craft.

Sim­i­lar to other Euro­pean forces, the Swedish Air Force was pushed to jus­tify its ex­is­tence in a chang­ing world and be­gan to look be­yond its na­tional bor­ders, join­ing multi­na­tional peace­keep­ing and en­forc­ing op­er­a­tions (such as Uni­fied Pro­tec­tor over Libya in 2011) with great tac­ti­cal and mil­i­tary suc­cess.

Be­com­ing leaner by op­ti­mis­ing the tech­ni­cal ca­pa­bil­i­ties of its ground-based and air­borne as­sets, and in­creas­ingly ‘out-ofarea’ ori­en­tated, the Swedish Armed Forces were taken by sur­prise in Jan­uary 2013 when the Rus­sian Air Force sent waves of bombers over the Baltic Sea in a large-scale sim­u­lated at­tack on Stock­holm. Dur­ing the Cold War a sim­i­lar ex­er­cise would have trig­gered a well-oiled chain of de­fen­sive re­ac­tions, but un­for­tu­nately in this case, not a sin­gle Swedish air­craft was scram­bled to in­ter­cept the in­com­ing air­craft!

Neg­a­tive re­sponse in the na­tional press and pub­lic crit­i­cism urged the Swedish Air Force to re­think its op­er­a­tional doc­trine with a shift once more to­ward na­tional de­fence. The Swedish Air Force’s four op­er­a­tional Gripen squadrons re­main Swe­den’s most im­por­tant air­borne de­ter­rent.

171 Squadron (1° Divi­son, F17)

Formed on 1 July 1944 as the 1st Di­vi­sion (co­de­named Qv­in­tus Röd) of the Ron­nebyKallinge based F17 Blekinge Flygflot­tillj, 171 Squadron be­gan as a mar­itime at­tack unit but was re-roled sev­eral times in its op­er­a­tional his­tory, fi­nally be­com­ing a JA 37 Viggen fighter unit in 1993.

F17 was planned from the start to be­come an op­er­a­tional Gripen unit, but the con­ver­sion was ac­cel­er­ated af­ter Swedish bud­getary cut­backs re­duced the num­ber of Gripen fighter wings. In 2002 both F17 squadrons started their con­ver­sion on the JAS 39, re­ceiv­ing air­craft from the dis­banded F10 Wing at Än­gel­holm, which was fi­nally dis­banded on 31 De­cem­ber 2002, hav­ing op­er­ated A-model Gripens from 2000 on­ward.

In 2005, F17 re­ceived the up­dated mul­ti­role JAS 39C/D Gripen, which have since then been con­tin­u­ously up­graded, and are now op­er­a­tional with the lat­est avion­ics soft­ware, al­low­ing use of the most mod­ern weapons, such as IRIS-T IR short-range airto-air mis­siles, GBU-49 En­hanced Pave­way, and the MBDA Me­teor BVRAAM.

The mul­ti­role ca­pa­bil­i­ties of the JAS 39C en­able 171 Squadron to per­form a wide range of op­er­a­tional mis­sions : air de­fence, air-to-ground strike, anti-ship­ping and re­con­nais­sance. For air de­fence/ polic­ing mis­sions the Gripens are armed with wingtip-mounted IRIS-T heat-seek­ing mis­siles and AIM- 120C AMRAAMs, sup­ple­ment­ing the in­ter­nal sin­gle-bar­rel Mauser BK27 20mm can­non. To gain and re­tain their air-to-air gun­nery qual­i­fi­ca­tions, fre­quent gun­nery ses­sions are or­gan­ised over the Baltic Sea us­ing acous­tic and wooden tar­gets towed by yel­low-coloured Lear­jet 35As of Saab Nyge Aero, based at Nyköping.

For air- to- air mis­sions, the Swedish Air Force’s Gripen fleet is sup­ple­mented by two Saab S 100D Ar­gus ASC (Air­borne Sur­veil­lance and Con­trol) air­craft, equipped with the ASC-890 Eri­eye sys­tem, op­er­ated by 172 squadron based at LinköpingMal­men. These air­borne sur­veil­lance air­craft (as well as all JAS 39 Gripens) are linked to the Swedish Air Force ‘StriC’ com­mand and con­trol sys­tem which is the heart of a forces-wide web of in­for­ma­tion gath­er­ing as­sets, rang­ing from UAVs, S 102B Kor­pen SIGINT air­craft, ground based air de­fence radars to desk- bound in­for­ma­tion war­fare units. This ‘Ad­vanced Air Bat­tle 2020’ con­cept, trig­gered by the Swedish Armed Forces Dom­i­nant Bat­tlespace Aware­ness’ (DBA) doc­trine, is based on net­work- based in­for­ma­tion gath­er­ing by the ASIS high-ca­pac­ity data fu­sion net­work and free ac­cess to this tac­ti­cal in­for­ma­tion at all lev­els.

Dur­ing the ad­vanced op­er­a­tional train­ing course, young Gripen pi­lots of 171 Squadron of­ten train with ex­pe­ri­enced

Gripen pi­lots, fly­ing Ronneby-based Sk60A train­ers fromF17’ s Sam­bands-fly­grupp ( Li­ai­son Flight). Both sets of pi­lots are fa­mil­iar with each other’s air­craft, and the ‘ban­dit’ will use the su­pe­rior slow-speed hor­i­zon­tal ma­noeu­vring ca­pa­bil­i­ties of the older Sk60 to force the young Gripen pi­lot to ex­ploit his tech­ni­cally su­pe­rior and more ca­pa­ble fighter to make the aerial fight a three-di­men­sional bat­tle. These in­di­vid­ual en­gage­ments are short, and both air­craft re­turn to their start­ing po­si­tions for mul­ti­ple such fights in a mis­sion.

To al­low ac­tive par­tic­i­pa­tion in in­ter­na­tional mil­i­tary op­er­a­tions and to im­prove in­ter­op­er­abil­ity with coali­tion air forces, the Swedish Air Force de­cided in Oc­to­ber 2005 to in­stall in the ma­jor­ity of its Gripens and ASC air­craft the NATO­s­tan­dard MIDS Link 16 tac­ti­cal datalink – in ad­di­tion to the Swedish Tac­ti­cal In­for­ma­tion Datalink Sys­tem ( TIDLS) al­ready in use.

Young pi­lots, as­signed to 171 Squadron af­ter train­ing at the 1st Di­vi­sion of the Såtenäs-based F7 Wing, the SwAF’s Gripen con­ver­sion unit, start op­er­a­tional tac­ti­cal cour­ses with air-to-air tac­tics taught by the squadron’s in­struc­tors over a pe­riod of 20 to 30 mis­sions.

For air- to- ground strike, the SwAF Gripen squadrons uses mod­ern weapons and sen­sors to ex­e­cute of­fen­sive counter air, air in­ter­dic­tion and close air sup­port mis­sions in sup­port of the Swedish Army : 250 kg GBU-12 laser-guided bombs and more mod­ern GBU-49 GPS- and laser­guided Pave­way IIs, guided by state-of-

the-art Rafael Litening III tar­get­ing pods. These mod­ern LGBs re­place the older AGM-65A/B Mav­er­ick mis­siles (called Rb75 in SwAF ser­vice).

Fre­quently, pairs of 171 Squadron pi­lots take-off from Ronneby for air-to-air gun­nery prac­tice at the nearby sea- side Ravlunda range. Guided by a for­ward air con­troller on the ground, one Gripen will at­tack a tar­get with its Mauser can­non, while the wing­man will scan the area for ground and air threats.

Live LGBs can be dropped dur­ing ded­i­cated air- to- ground de­ploy­ments to the vast Vid­sel air base, lo­cated in Swe­den’s ex­treme north. Vid­sel is a 1650 sq km un­in­hab­ited for­est and marsh­land area hous­ing the North Euro­pean Aero­space Test Range, owned by the Swedish De­fence Ma­te­rial Ad­min­is­tra­tion, and host to fre­quent de­ploy­ments of Swedish and in­ter­na­tional fighter squadrons (and aero­space com­pa­nies) for test­ing of plat­forms and weaponry in re­al­is­tic tac­ti­cal con­di­tions.

In these re­mote and un­in­hab­ited ar­eas, Gripen pi­lots are al­lowed to fly as low as 600 feet in the sum­mer­time and 100 feet dur­ing win­ter. While these tac­ti­cal fly­ing rules are fol­lowed in most parts of Swe­den, both Ronneby squadrons fre­quently send pi­lots north to their col­leagues at F21 at Luleå-Kal­lax for low-level train­ing in or­der to re­duce noise com­plaints in the more pop­u­lated south­ern ar­eas.

The vast al­most un­lim­ited airspace over Swe­den’s north al­lows F21 to or­gan­ise weekly cross-bor­der train­ing with F-16AM Fight­ing Fal­cons of the Royal Nor­we­gian Air Force and F/A-18C/D Hor­nets from the Fin­nish Air Force, stag­ing com­plex but re­al­is­tic air war sce­nar­ios. Ronneby squadrons par­tic­i­pate when­ever pos­si­ble, so as to com­ple­ment their reg­u­lar train­ing ex­er­cises with Royal Dan­ish Air Force F-16AM Fight­ing Falcon squadrons and the NATO Baltic Polic­ing con­tin­gent based in Lithua­nia. Pi­lots of 171 Squadron fre­quently prac­tice air-to-air re­fu­el­ing in the SwAF train­ing ar­eas over the Baltic Sea with Swedish C-130H Her­cules (lo­cally des­ig­nated Tp84T) out of Såtenäs air base. The Gripen’s aerial- re­fu­el­ing ca­pa­bil­ity was op­er­a­tionalised in mid-2009, to en­able par­tic­i­pa­tion in in­ter­na­tional out-of-area op­er­a­tions and boost the flex­i­bil­ity of the Gripen fleet. Nowa­days, most Gripen pi­lots are qual­i­fied to re­ceive fuel from Swedish Tp84T Her­cules, USAF KC-135s, KDC10s of the Dutch Air Force and Ger­man Luft­waffe Airbus MRTTs.

The Gripen’s strike role is sup­ple­mented by an im­por­tant mar­itime strike and an­ti­ship war­fare ca­pa­bil­ity, safe­guard­ing Swe­den from mar­itime in­va­sion and pro­tect­ing mar­itime sea-lanes of com­mu­ni­ca­tion. The prime weapon in this role is the Saab Bo­fors Dy­nam­ics RBS-15 sub­sonic fire-and-for­get sea- skim­ming mis­sile, ca­pa­ble of be­ing launched at very low level. The RBS-15 al­lows Gripen pi­lots, usu­ally op­er­at­ing in four- ship at­tack for­ma­tions, to stay un­de­tected be­fore and af­ter launch­ing their lethal sea-skim­ming weapons at mar­itime tar­gets. In 2004, Saab be­gan de­vel­op­ment of a land-at­tack ver­sion of the RBS-15, us­ing GP Sand a de­riv­a­tive of the Gripen’s ter­rain-ref­er­enced nav­i­ga­tion sys­tem, im­prov­ing over­all ac­cu­racy.

To com­ple­ment its air- to- air ( Jakt) and strike ( At­tack) ca­pa­bil­i­ties, the JAS39 Gripen is also used for re­con­nais­sance mis­sions ( Span­ing, com­plet­ing the mul­ti­role ‘JAS’ acro­nym) within the SwAF, us­ing the mod­ern cen­tre­line-mounted SPK39 ( Span­ingskapsel 39) tac­ti­cal re­con­nais­sance pod. De­vel­oped by Saab Avion­ics and Dan­ish de­fence firm Terma, the SPK39 houses elec­tro-op­ti­cal and in­fra-red sen­sors, a solid state data recorder and a datalink to share im­ages within the SwAF net­work. Gripen pi­lots can also use their Litening tar­get­ing pods for tar­get re­con­nais­sance. The JAS39’s ex­cel­lent re­con­nais­sance and bat­tle­field aware­ness ca­pa­bil­i­ties were well proven dur­ing Swe­den’s par­tic­i­pa­tion in Op­er­a­tion Uni­fied Pro­tec­tor over Libya in 2011, shoot­ing count­less vi­tal re­con­nais­sance pic­tures with their SPK39 and Litening III pods ( see Vayu IV/2012).

In­ter­na­tional Op­er­a­tions

Since the end of the Cold War, Swe­den has placed a large em­pha­sis on in­ter­na­tional peace­keep­ing op­er­a­tions. In 2000 the Swedish Air Force Rapid Re­ac­tion Unit (SWAFRAP) was es­tab­lished, to be placed un­der the di­rec­tion of the United Na­tions, Euro­pean Union or NATO’s Part­ner­ship for Peace pro­gramme. Ini­tially a squadron of AJSF 37 Viggen fighters and a C-130H Her­cules were as­signed to SWAFRAP. The with­drawal of the last Viggens passed the rapid re­ac­tion task to the JAS 39 Gripens from 2004 on, un­til SWAFRAP was dis­banded in late 2007.

On 1 Jan­uary 2008 the Nordic Bat­tle Group was cre­ated, com­posed of mil­i­tary forces from Swe­den, Es­to­nia, Nor­way and Fin­land. From the start Swe­den as­signed eight JAS 39C/D to the NBG to be known as Strids­fly­gen­het 01 (SE01, Com­bat Air­craft Unit 01), staffed by pi­lots and ground crew of F21 at Luleå. Since then, el­e­ments of F21 and F17 – in­clud­ing 171 Squadron – are as­signed to the NBG on ro­ta­tional ba­sis, with 171 Squadron serv­ing un­der NBG in 2011 and 2015.

The Swedish Air Force SE- con­cept was first tested when seven Gripens of 171 Squadron and 100 sup­port per­son­nel de­ployed to RAF Fair­ford in Eng­land, to prac­tice and eval­u­ate their ca­pa­bil­i­ties to op­er­ate as in­de­pen­dently as pos­si­ble from

home­land sup­port from an out-of-area base. Dur­ing this ex­er­cise, named Crown Con­dor, the Swedish pi­lots worked along with No. 12 (Bomber) Squadron of the RAF, fly­ing Panavia Tor­nado GR.4 air­craft.

Fre­quent train­ing de­tach­ments are also de­ployed to the UK, USA and the Nether­lands. Swedish Gripens fre­quently par­tic­i­pate in the RAF-led Joint War­rior mar­itime ex­er­cise se­ries out of RAF Lossiemouth in Scot­land and visit UKbased fighter units ( USAF 48th Fighter Wing with the F-15E Strike Ea­gle) to train to­gether in com­plex sce­nar­ios, mak­ing use of the ded­i­cated elec­tronic war­fare ranges in the United King­dom.

Joint F21-F17 con­tin­gents par­tic­i­pated in the well-known USAF Red Flag ex­er­cises out of Nel­lis AFB in Ne­vada and El­men­dorf AFB in Alaska, mak­ing en­thu­si­as­tic use of the lo­cal fly­ing ar­eas to ex­er­cise tac­ti­cal pro­files and train­ing against range sim­u­lated air de­fence sys­tems and USAF ag­gres­sor units. For fi­nan­cial and lo­gis­ti­cal rea­sons transcon­ti­nen­tal train­ing is not al­ways fea­si­ble, so the an­nual Frisian Flag ex­er­cise or­gan­ised by the Dutch Air Force out of Leeuwar­den Air Base in the Nether­lands proves to be a valu­able al­ter­na­tive.

The sole con­straint dur­ing these valu­able in­ter­na­tional train­ing ex­cur­sions is Swe­den’s ‘ non- NATO’ sta­tus, which ham­pers Swedish ac­cess to ‘NATO-only’ in­for­ma­tion that is valu­able for plan­ning and ex­e­cu­tion of ex­er­cise mis­sions.

The NATO- led Op­er­a­tion Uni­fied Pro­tec­tor ( OUP) over Libya in 2011 marked op­er­a­tional in­ter­na­tional de­but of the Swedish Gripen force. Fol­low­ing a de­ci­sion by Swedish Par­lia­ment on 1 April 2011 to join OUP, and sup­ported by Den­mark as a NATO ‘spon­sor,’ the first Gripen de­tach­ment ( FL01), crewed by pi­lots of 171 Squadron, was flown to NAS Sigonella in Si­cily, mak­ing a tech­ni­cal stop at Kecskemét, a Hun­gar­ian Air Force JAS 39C/D base. The first two-ship mis­sions to mon­i­tor and en­force the no-fly zone over Libya were flown by FL01 out of NAS Sigonella a mere five days later, on 6 April. The Gripens were sup­ported by a SwAF Tp84T tanker for air-to-air re­fu­el­ing, and the Swedish par­tic­i­pa­tion was given the co­de­name Op­er­a­tion Karakal.

Be­com­ing fa­mil­iar with the Gripen’s out­stand­ing re­con­nais­sance ca­pa­bil­i­ties, NATO quickly re­quested Swe­den to re-role its Gripen air­craft into the re­con­nais­sance role, with great suc­cess. At the same time the Swedish Par­lia­ment ex­panded the SwAF par­tic­i­pa­tion and re­lease re­stric­tions on the type of op­er­a­tions per­formed by the Gripen pi­lots. The FL02 con­tin­gent was staffed by pi­lots of the Luleå-based 212 Squadron but lacked the Tp84T tanker sup­port, and there­fore utilised NATO tankers (French KC-135FRs). OUP mis­sions were coun­terair ori­ented recce mis­sions ‘ screen­ing’ air­fields and mo­bile Sur­face-to-Air Mis­sile (SAM) sites.

In to­tal, Op­er­a­tion Karakal in­volved a to­tal of 650 op­er­a­tional sor­ties ( and some 2,000 fly­ing hours) flown over seven months, gen­er­ated nu­mer­ous re­con­nais­sance re­ports that were in­valu­able for mis­sion plan­ning dur­ing OUP.

Once back at Ronneby, the op­er­a­tional life of 171 Squadron re­turned to its tra­di­tional pace : be­gin­ning with the weather briefing at 0720h be­fore head­ing to their squadron to pre­pare their in­di­vid­ual or el­e­ment-train­ing mis­sion. To re­duce noise com­plaints, Ronneby pi­lots are not al­lowed to take-off be­fore 0850h and need to stop fly­ing around 1630h lo­cal time for day­time mis­sions, and 2200h dur­ing night fly­ing. De­pend­ing on the op­er­a­tional qual­i­fi­ca­tion, train­ing phase and staff func­tion of var­i­ous pi­lots, 171 Squadron on av­er­age sees each pi­lot fly around 100-160 fly­ing hours a year.

Both Ronneby squadrons serve as Quick Re­ac­tion Alert (QRA) units on 24/7 standby ro­ta­tion, to be able to launch when needed to in­ter­cept for­eign (mostly Rus­sian) mil­i­tary fighters or re­con­nais­sance air­craft over the Baltic Sea. Since 2004, SwAF Gripens fre­quently en­counter NATO fighters based at Ši­au­liai in Lithua­nia as part of NATO’s Baltic Air Polic­ing mis­sion, safe­guard­ing the airspace of the Baltic States (Es­to­nia, Latvia and Lithua­nia) from for­eign in­cur­sions. To stan­dard­ise and train pre­vail­ing air polic­ing rules of en­gage­ment, fre­quent Baltic Re­gion Train­ing Ex­er­cises (BRTEs) are or­gan­ised. The ex­er­cises have he­li­copters or trans­port air­craft of one of the Baltic States sim­u­lat­ing a com­mu­ni­ca­tions loss, forc­ing NATO or Swedish fighters to launch and in­ter­cept the in­truder. On oc­ca­sion, the Ronneby squadrons de­ploy to Ši­au­liai dur­ing a BRTE and make use of the oc­ca­sion to per­form some ad­di­tional DACT fly­ing with the Ši­au­liai-based fighters, de­pend­ing on the BRTE sce­nario and time avail­abil­ity.

Al­though Swedish and NATO air polic­ing in­ter­ests over the Baltic Sea are more or less sim­i­lar – de­ter­ring and in­ter­cept­ing Rus­sian re­con­nais­sance flights and as­sist­ing air­craft with com­mu­ni­ca­tions is­sues – each party still in­de­pen­dently eval­u­ates the ne­ces­sity to launch air polic­ing fighters.

The com­bi­na­tion of high pro­fes­sion­al­ism of SwAF fighter pi­lots, ca­pa­bil­i­ties of the JAS 39C/D, and the un­lim­ited airspace in north­ern Swe­den makes Swedish Gripen units much sought af­ter spar­ring part­ners dur­ing in­ter­na­tional air ex­er­cises. An an­nual Nordic Air Meet is or­gan­ised out of Luleå Air Base, at­tended by the var­i­ous Gripen squadrons and nu­mer­ous for­eign fighters. 2012’s Nordic Air Meet saw ac­tive par­tic­i­pa­tion from Swiss and Fin­nish F/A18C/D Hor­nets, USAF and Royal Dan­ish Air Force F-16 Fight­ing Fal­cons and RAF Tor­nado GR.4 air­craft, as­sisted by USAF KC-135 tankers.

In April 2012, Ronneby hosted the first Lion Ef­fort ex­er­cise, at­tended by pi­lots of all five air forces fly­ing the Gripen (Swe­den, Czech Repub­lic, Hun­gary, South Africa and Thai­land). Dur­ing this week­long Gripen ex­er­cise, multi­na­tional COMAOs (Com­bined Air Op­er­a­tions) were flown to test in­te­gra­tion and op­er­a­tion the in­di­vid­ual avion­ics suites of the var­i­ous na­tional Gripen vari­ants. In­te­gra­tion of the SAAF Gripens for ex­am­ple, which are equipped with their own do­mes­tic avion­ics and ra­dio suites, proved quite a chal­lenge.

More spe­cial was the SwAF par­tic­i­pa­tion in the 18-day NATO Ice­land Fighter Meet 2014, or­gan­ised at Ke­flavik air base in Fe­bru­ary 2014. ‘Spon­sored’ by the Royal Nor­we­gian Air Force, SwAF JAS 39C/D Gripens and Fin­nish F/A-18C/D Hor­nets joined RNoAF F-16AM Fight­ing Fal­cons to train of­fen­sive and de­fen­sive counter air mis­sions over the north­ern At­lantic Ocean. All at­tack­ing and de­fend­ing for­ma­tions were mixed Gripen-Hor­net-Falcon for­ma­tions, in or­der to train in­ter­op­er­abil­ity be­tween the var­i­ous air forces. In the event of ac­tual in­cur­sions by for­eign mil­i­tary air­craft dur­ing IFM 2014, how­ever, only the RNoAF F-16AM Fight­ing Fal­cons were al­lowed to make op­er­a­tional in­ter­cepts.

The Gripen’s Fu­ture

Up­grad­ing fighter air­craft to re­main is an om­nipresent de­sire of all air forces, con­strained by equally om­nipresent fi­nan­cial re­stric­tions! The Swedish Air Force has con­tin­u­ously kept its fighter fleet up to date with a com­bi­na­tion of new build air­craft, and re­build/up­grade of older Gripens to more mod­ern stan­dards.

Al­though the Swedish Air Force had ini­tially planned (and paid for) 204 JAS 39s, it to­day aims at an op­er­a­tional Gripen fleet of 100 fighters – 75 sin­gle-seat C-mod­els and 25 twin seat D-mod­els. Of the 120 A/B mod­els orig­i­nally de­liv­ered, a to­tal of 18 JAS 39A and 13 JAS 39Bs were mod­i­fied into more ad­vanced C/D-mod­els. Six­teen ad­di­tional A/B-mod­els were used to re­build Hun­gary’s four­teen C/D Gripens.

The Swedish Air Force is now start­ing to up­grade its cur­rent C/D fleet to the MS20 soft­ware stan­dard, al­low­ing in­te­gra­tion of the new MBDA Me­teor BVRAAM and Boe­ing’s GBU-39 Small Di­am­e­ter Bomb. Night op­er­a­tions with the SPK39 mo­du­lar re­con­nais­sance pod will be made pos­si­ble and new Chem­i­cal, Bi­o­log­i­cal, Ra­di­o­log­i­cal and Nu­clear (CBRN) pro­tec­tion for the pi­lot will be in­te­grated to­gether with an au­to­matic Ground Col­li­sion Avoid­ance Sys­tem (Auto-GCAS).

In De­cem­ber 2013, the Swedish De­fence Ma­te­rial Ad­min­is­tra­tion, re­spon­si­ble for all Swedish mil­i­tary pro­cure­ment, con­tracted Saab to com­mence con­ver­sion of sixty Gripen C to the new gen­er­a­tion Gripen E vari­ant over a 13-year pe­riod (2013-2026) un­der a $2.5 bil­lion agree­ment ( see Vayu I/2014). The SwAF’s JAS39D air­craft will re­main in ser­vice given their suit­abil­ity to act as lead-in train­ers for the E-mod­els. Sub­se­quent re­vi­sions to the agree­ment saw the num­ber of Swedish E-mod­els in­creased, and then on 11 June 2014, the Swedish Par­lia­ment elected to can­cel the up­grade pro­gramme and to pro­cure new- build E-mod­els ( see Vayu IV/2014).

For years to come the ca­pa­ble, nim­ble and con­tin­u­ously up­dated JAS 39 Gripen will re­main Swe­den’s and 171 Squadron’s main air­borne fighter as­set. Easy to op­er­ate from peace­time air­bases and wartime road bases alike, the SwAF Gripen fleet will be a force to reckon with… and a valu­able part­ner dur­ing joint in­ter­na­tional op­er­a­tions with al­lied air forces.

Gripen Cs on the apron

Clock­wise from top left: 171 Squadron patch, Ice­land Air Meet ex­er­cise patch high­light­ing the ...

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