Now You See It…

03.24.14

The Planet’s Best Stealth Fighter Isn’t Made in America

The U.S. military likes to think it makes the world’s most sophisticated combat aircraft. Think again.

In 2005, Lockheed Martin labeled the F-35, the stealthy new jet they were building for the Pentagon, as a “fifth-generation” fighter. Ironically, it was a term that they had borrowed from Russia to describe a different stealthy fighter, the F-22. But the term caught on. Some of Lockheed’s rivals tumbled into this rhetorical trap and tried to argue that “fourth-generation” was just as capable—whether it is true or not, making such a case is an uphill struggle.

But if “fifth-generation” means more than “the ultimate driving machine,” a sixth generation will emerge. Saab—yes, that Saab—can argue that it has built the first such aircraft. The Swedish plane has got a mouthful of a name: the JAS 39E Gripen. But it could well be the future of air combat.

The concept behind the “fifth generation” of fighters is almost 30 years old. It dates to the final turning point in the Cold War, when the Reagan administration accelerated the arms race, believing (correctly) that the Soviet economic engine would throw a rod first. The F-22 was designed for a challenging but simple war: if you were in a NATO fighter and the nose was pointed east, pretty much everyone headed your way was trying to kill you.

Defense technology led aerospace in those days, and aerospace drove many other technologies. Today’s gaming, simulation and movies are descended from 1980s military simulators.

The world has changed a bit. Operation Allied Force in 1999 presaged the air campaigns of the 2000s, where targets were soft but hard to find, and harder yet to pick out of the civilian environment. We can say little for certain about the nature of future conflict, except that it is likely to be led by, and revolve around, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR). For the individual pilot, sailor or soldier, that means having better sense of the conflict zone is key.

Demographics and economics are squeezing the size of the world’s militaries—nations with more than 100 combat aircraft are few and getting fewer. There are no blank checks for overruns.

Much of the technology of 1995, let alone 1985, has a Flintstones look from today’s perspective. (My 1985 computer boasted 310 kB of storage and communicated at a screaming 300 bits per second.) Software is no longer what makes machines work; an iPhone is hardware that is valued because of the apps that it supports. This technology is characterized by development and deployment cycles measured in months. In aerospace, the lead in materials and manufacturing has gone to the commercial side.

“This is not the world’s fastest, most agile or stealthiest fighter. That is not a bug, it is a feature.”

The conundrum facing fighter planners is that, however smart your engineering, these aircraft are expensive to design and build, and have a cradle-to-grave product life that is far beyond either the political or technological horizon.

The reason that the JAS 39E may earn “sixth generation” tag is that it has been designed with these issues in mind. Software comes first: the new hardware runs the latest Mission System 21 software, the latest roughly-biennial release in the series that started with the earlier, A and B models of the aircraft.

Long life requires adaptability, both across missions and through-life. The Gripen was designed as a small aircraft with a relatively large payload. And by porting most of the software to the new version, the idea is that all of the C and D models’ weapons and capabilities, and then some, are ready to go on the E.

The Swedes have invested in state-of-the-art sensors, including what may be the first in-service electronic warfare system using gallium nitride technology. It’s significant that a lot of space is devoted to the system used to pick out friendly from hostile aircraft; a good IFF (“identification friend-or-foe”) system is most important in a confused situation where civilian, friendly, neutral, questionable and hostile actors are sharing the same airspace.

Sweden’s ability to develop its own state-of-the-art fighters has long depended on blending home-grown and imported technology. Harvesting technology rather than inventing it becomes more important as commercial technology takes a leading role and becomes more global. The JAS 39E engine is from the U.S., the radar from Britain and the infra-red search and track system is from Italy. Much of the airframe may be built in Brazil.

However, what should qualify the JAS 39E for a “sixth generation” tag is what suits it most for a post-Cold War environment. It is not the world’s fastest, most agile or stealthiest fighter. That is not a bug, it is a feature. The requirements were deliberately constrained because the JAS 39E is intended to cost less to develop, build and operate than the JAS 39C, despite doing almost everything better. As one engineer says: “The Swedish air force could not afford to do this the traditional way”—and neither can many others.

It’s an ambitious goal, and it is the first time that Sweden has undertaken such a project in the international spotlight. But if it is successful it will teach lessons that nobody can afford not to learn.

This column also appears in the March 24 issue of Aviation Week & Space Technology.