By early summer, the upgraded Swedish JAS 39 Gripen system will have several new abilities. But, before that, all new systems are tested by the Armed Forces' own tactical development. By a cold evening’s moonlight, we went to FMV's missile test range in northern Sweden to see what happens.
The pines rise high around the four paved pockets along the moonlit road. Four men in G-suits and with helmets in their hands leave the barracks building and walk in the dark about a hundred meters through the forest toward the waiting aircraft.
Even in the dark, FMV's test site in Vidsel is a hive of activity. Technicians with headlamps are working to prepare the aircraft for the evening's final flight session. Some are carry ammunition for the onboard cannon, while another refreshes the data for the session.
The pilots belong to Tactical Development Unit JAS 39 Gripen, or TU JAS by its Swedish initials. They have a single task: to develop the tactical capability of the Gripen system.
Tonight, that means flying missions in the framework of their ongoing operational evaluation, OPEVAL, of the upgraded version of the Gripen, known as MS20.
“The outcome of the TU JAS operational evaluation is a report on the new system compared to what we have ordered. The report is part of the Armed Forces' decision-making process on whether to begin using version MS20,” says Pierre Ziherl, pilot and director of TU JAS.
The world's best air missiles
While technicians from FMV’s test and evaluation team load ammunition for the automatic gun, Pierre Ziherl explains the difference between the trials TU JAS conducts and those made by FMV and industry.
“Unlike the technical examination that Saab and FMV carry out, we do it in an operational context with Air Force pilots here in Vidsel in realistic combat conditions. Within the Armed Forces, we have different resources to put aircraft in the air in a common test context. Therefore, we have better opportunities to evaluate the tactical skill in combat-like environments.
Many of the aircraft are armed with the new Meteor missile.
“Meteor is the best and most modern air-to-air missile. In combination with our infra-red R missile IRIS-T, we now have the world's best air-intercept missiles on one of the world's best aircraft. Together, they bring a fundamental capability to the Air Force. It helps increase the threshold effect, that is the deterrent effect when one party has a superior capability,” says Pierre Ziherl.
During tonight's sortie the aircraft are armed with the new missiles. “It’s so we can see what we get in terms of for performance. We will examine maneuverability and endurance with the load factors in a combat-like environment, at different altitudes and speeds. Because we want to evaluate Version 20 in such as operational an environment as possible, we use a part of the air base that is as similar as possible to a wartime operational base. We also take off and land with unlit runways,” said Pierre Ziherl.
Instead of runway lights, pilots use an image intensifier, the so-called NVG (night vision goggles), which they attach to their helmet. For flight safety reasons, they use some aircraft lights as they cross civil airspace for part of their flight.
One of the evening's tasks is to work on tactics development for a new method of bombing using digital communication between ground forces and aircraft.
“The new collaboration tool, called Digital Aided Close Air Support, or DACAS, facilitates interaction between ground and air units. The aim is to integrate our air support of ground combat units. Troops on the ground can enter target positions, attack directions and other information so we will quickly be able to attack,” says Pierre Ziherl.
Some of the aircraft will also conduct live firing tests with their automatic gun against targets in FMV's test area.
The aircraft turns on some of their position lights and taxi out on the road that leads to the air base runway.
In addition to the Meteor, the upgrade to Version 20 also includes the Small Diameter Bomb (SDB), also known as GBU-39. This is a small bomb with long range and high accuracy. These properties provide a long stand-off range, which means that pilots can use the weapon without having to come very close to the target, and this is an important advantage when operating in a high-threat environment.
Version MS20 also includes a lot of general improvements based on feedback from the previous generation. These include new radar software and an improvement in the field of Electronic Warfare, EW.
TU JAS is involved in the entire development chain of the Gripen system, from the development of the requirements documents, through meetings with industry, simulations and flight tests to develop tactical instructions and to finally introduce the system into Air Force service.
“Part of the TU JAS testing is done jointly with FMV. We try to integrate ourselves in each other's activities as far as possible. In this way we gain knowledge of upcoming systems earlier, while FMV get a more committed close insight into how the systems will be used once they are delivered,” says Pierre Ziherl.
When they landed again after the last pass everything goes very quickly. Pilots shower and get changed. It is late at night now. On the way to the car to take him to bed, Pierre Ziherl stops and looks up in the moonlight.
“You often talk about gadgets, but it must be backed up by an organization, training, logistics and tactics. A capability is so much more than a simple gadget.”