The biggest asset of the JAS-39C/D is its ability to allow us to conduct sort of like an Asymmetric or Guerilla type of warfare against a stronger opponent. Just as Submarines will allow us to fight such a type of war using our Navy, the Gripen could allow us to do something similar, but this time with our Air Force.
This is because the JAS-39C/D was designed right from the outset to be able to operate not from just major airfields, but also on smaller, less prepared airstrips like small Tactical Bases or even stretches of roads that are at least 16 m wide and 800 m long.
This enables the JAS-39C/D to take off from one area and then land in another, and it can do this cycle over and over again making it difficult for the enemy to know exactly where it will be flying from or landing to next, and therefore making it harder for them to take it out of operation.
’Purpose built Design‘
Other combat aircraft are able to operate from dispersed locations also, but not to the same degree as the JAS-39C/D since such operations were “built in” into the design of the aircraft. The JAS-39C/D for example is easier to service and repair, it has Short Take Off and Landing (STOL) capability, has less stringent manpower support requirements, and special tools are available to be used on it for dispersed operations.
For example, lifting tools were created to allow weapons to be manually winched into their pylons, or even to lift the engine during removal and installation. A lightweight ladder is available that can be hooked on the side of the cockpit allowing the pilot to go in or out of the aircraft, or for Technicians to work alongside the pilot.
These tools are housed in small trailers that can be pulled by a medium sized vehicle. There is even a Tactical Landing System that allows the Gripen to land in dispersed runways during bad weather.
The aircraft itself has built in design features to make it easier to manually work on. The major access panels for example can be opened or closed using finger operated latches, and the height of the Gripen was designed to be as low as possible to allow people to work more easily with it on the ground.
The landing gears are strengthened to allow for No Flare Landings (i.e., landings where the nose wheel touches down closely just right after the main wheels touches down) since this technique allows less use of a runway’s length. And instead of just the Main Wheels, the Nose Wheels have brakes too, and the brakes are more powerful, allowing again for a shorter landing run.
Even more impressive is its ability to be serviced mainly by Conscripts, meaning people who are compulsorily enlisted into military service, usually for only short periods of time. A team consisting of one Technician and five Conscript Mechanics is enough to conduct checks, replenish weapons and ammunition, fuel the aircraft, etc. within ten (10) minutes for the air to air role and 20 minutes for the strike role.
Just to illustrate the importance of this: In Sweden, an Air Force Conscript serves for only one year. After that he leaves active service and is relegated to the Reserve Forces, and another person takes his place. As per Saab, it takes only ten (10) weeks of training to allow a Conscript to work on the Gripen.
This means that a person can be drafted into service, even those with absolutely no Aircraft Maintenance experience whatsoever, given a two (2) and half month training, and he or she can already perform complex service operations on the aircraft, including changing the engine. In contrast, other aircraft on the same level as the Gripen would require no less than qualified career Mechanics to even touch the aircraft.
The ability to operate from many diverse places is important when going up against stronger opponents who have much better military resources than ours because even if they are successful in taking out our main airbases, they still won’t be able to completely disrupt our military air operations.
Say we do end up going up against a world superpower like China, for example. The American research organization Rand Corporation in 2015 wrote in a research paper that China has the capability to shut down our Antonio Bautista Air Base in Palawan for more than 11 days using 72 of their DF-21C Medium Range Ballistic Missiles (MRBM) fired from mainland China.
The DF-21C uses a combination of Inertial Navigation System (INS) and Radar Correlation Guidance systems, has a range of 2,500 km, has a warhead weight of 500 kg and has an Circular Error Probability (CEP) of 50 m. CEP is a measure of accuracy, it means the radius of a circle where a projectile has a 50% chance of landing. The smaller the CEP, the more accurate the projectile is.
Alternatively, instead of Ballistic Missiles, China can use its DH-10 Land Attack Cruise Missiles that can be fired all the way from mainland China to hit Bautista AB. The DH-10 is based on the American BGM-109 Tomahawk missile, possibly with intelligence gathered from crashed samples that were retrieved and reverse engineered.
It has a similar set of guidance systems as the Tomahawk (INS, Global Positioning System or GPS and Terrain Comparison or TERCOM), a range of 1,500-2,000 km, warhead of 400 kg8 and a CEP of only 20 m.
The DH-10 has an air-launched version, the CJ-10 of which six (6) can be carried by China’s H-6K bomber aircraft. The combination of the CJ-10 and H-6 enables China to hit targets like airbases anywhere in the Philippines even if the H-6 flies all the way from mainland China.
Rand estimates that under ideal conditions, it will take no more than approximately fifteen (15) DH-10/CJ-10 missiles with Submunition waheads to destroy all parked aircraft not only at Bautista AB, but an airfield even as far away as General Santos International Airport (formerly known as Tambler Airport9) in Mindanao.
China was estimated to have had around 200-500 DH-10 missiles back in 2010, so I expect that a lot more has been produced since then along with the CJ-10, more than enough to attack all of our major airbases all over the country.
I think that for our Air Force to fully optimize the Gripen’s advantages, it will have to adopt at least in part the Dispersed Operations Philosophy it was designed for, and that means first, the special tools for such operations should ideally be part of the package if we do buy the aircraft.
Also the tool sets will have to be more than one because it doesn’t seem ideal to have all twelve aircraft operate on just one dispersed location. For one, it will leave bigger footprint and thus will be more difficult to hide.
And if for some reason the location is discovered and attacked by the enemy, then all of the aircraft will be lost. Perhaps at least three tool sets to service a maximum of four (4) aircraft per location would probably be ideal.
The Air Force should also invest in other mobile Support Equipment like Fuel Trucks, Ground Perimeter Security Vehicles, Camouflage Netting, and even vehicle mounted short range anti-air weapons to support and secure each dispersed area.
The Swedes themselves may be persuaded to help us formulate plans and teach us how to implement dispersed operations if we buy their Gripen aircraft. The Swedish Air Force (or Svenska Flygvapnet in Swedish) currently adopts an Air Force Basing Standard called the BAS 04 or Flygbasbataljon 04 (Airbase Battalion 04 in English) which is a fully mobile system that is completely independent of Infrastructure other than Runways or Roads.
’Cost of Operations’
It seems that the Gripen’s design of being able to operate in dispersed locations also help it have a lower Cost Per Flight Hour (CPFH) than other aircraft of similar capability. Getting values for CPFH can be a bit tricky though since there is no standard way of computing for it, hence values could vary a lot, sometimes even if they come from the same source.
The defense publication Jane’s did try to standardize the computation of the CPFH for different aircraft thru a study11 where they considered the same factors like the amount of fuel used, cost of pre-flight preparation and repair, scheduled airfield-level maintenance and associated personnel costs and came up with what they call as Basic CPFH.
And based on that study, they found that the JAS-39C/D was cheaper than an F-16C Fighting Falcon Block 40/50 aircraft by around 33%, costing only USD 4,700 versus the F-16C’s USD 7,000.
Actual CPFH values though tend to be different, for the JAS-39C/D it is as low as USD 4,000 (a Saab representative’s testimony to the Canada’s House of Commons)12 to as high as USD 13,350 (figures from the South African Air Force or SAAF)13.
As for the F-16C, its CPFH varies from as low as USD 8,70014 to as high as USD 22,470.15 Both figures were taken from different offices of the United States Department of Defense (DoD) at different periods of time.
Notice though that even in terms of the actual CPFH data, the JAS-39C/D figures are still lower than those of the F-16C. The AN/APG-83 Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) radar of the F-16V Viper Block 70 aircraft will likely help lower its CPFH compared to the F-16C since it has less maintenance requirements, but to what degree that impact will be seems unavailable as of now.
Note also that despite the Gripen’s lower CPFH, it has not kept the SAAF from putting half of their Gripen aircraft into semi-active status due to lack of funds back in 2013.16 But then again, if that can happen to the Gripen, then more so to other aircraft with higher CPFH.
One possible roadblock on the Philippines getting the Gripen is how the international community perceives the Human Rights (HR) situation because we have had issues with that with other countries recently, and this year Sweden amended their export control law for military equipment to include a sharper focus on a country’s HR situation.17
In 2017, the United States (US) put on hold indefinitely the sale of 27,000 Assault Rifles from Sig Sauer to the Philippine National Police (PNP) due to HR concerns.18
And then early this year, Canada ordered a review of what was supposed to be a done deal already for the sale of 16 Bell 412EPI helicopters to us, insisting that they should only be used for Humanitarian and Disaster Relief (HADR) operations despite the fact that these helicopters were clearly intended to be used as Combat Utility Helicopters (CUH) right from the start.19
But despite Sweden’s amendment of their law, Saab seems confident that the Philippines could still be a possible customer for their Gripen aircraft. The law took effect in April 2018 and yet five months later in September 2018 Saab still went on a “Full Court Press” with their Public Relations (PR) campaign by bringing a full scale mockup of the JAS-39C during the Asian Defence and Security (ADAS) tradeshow in Manila.20
Despite its range, payload and radar deficiencies compared to the F-16V discussed in the first part of this blog, the JAS-39C/D does have its advantages also like the fact that it was specifically designed for dispersed operations and will be able to that job better than most aircraft out there.
Dispersed operations capability for our Air Force I think is important because a powerful opponent like China will have the Ballistic and Cruise missile resources that can take out our major airfields. It also seems to have lower Operating Costs than aircraft like the F-16.
Sweden’s newly amended export laws could be a hindrance for the sale of the aircraft to us, but it seems Saab is confident that it could still push thru if we go for it.
Just like everything else, the JAS-39C/D has its pros and cons, it is just a question of which strengths the Air Force chooses to prioritize first and whether it can compromise with its deficiencies. Hoping to see the Air Force’s Multi Role Fighter (MRF) program move forward soon.
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