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