The Key To Gripen's Longevity

How many people drive a car for more than 15 years, or use a smart phone for more than five years? That would be near impossible because of two major reasons:

1. People don't like to use a product once it is past its average shelf-life.

2. Technology is evolving rapidly even as we speak, which means that over time, customers start looking for new functionalities or features.
However, the same cannot be the case when it comes to fighter planes. Fighters represent a great investment for governments and it is vital that they remain effective and operationally competitive throughout their entire time in service, which can be as long as 40 years. So what needs to be done for a fighter that it remains as capable as it is now, decades down the line? The answer lies in building adaptability, which in case of Gripen, has been achieved from an open architecture that allows easy integration of new features. 

Imagine having to buy a new phone every 5-6 months because its close architecture doesn’t support the latest apps and configuration. Or being stuck with the same phone for years with its old functionalities? Not a good situation to be in.

For Gripen, its split avionics separates 10% of core flight-critical management codebase from 90% of tactical management code. This results in avionics that are hardware-agnostic, leaving the tactical management to be integrated with new features without the need to re-certify the flight-critical software. 

According to Knut Övrebö, Chief Engineer at Future Air Systems, Saab business area Aeronautics, the entire design process of Gripen has gone through a world of change. During the late 1970s, designers in the Saab Aeronautics design department basically had “a blank sheet of paper to fill”. Today, Saab has a model based design concept which is a hundred times more advanced and efficient, and also allows easy integration of new features during development. Recently, Gripen Demo was adapted to get the avionics of Gripen E so that it can be used as a “flying simulator rig”. This will improve the pace of Gripen E testing programme.

Once Gripen is delivered to a customer, they can make step-wise improvements instead of going for a costly, mid-life upgrade. Saab’s Avionics Management System (AMS) boasts of multiple hardware and software abstraction layers that enable any part of the architecture to be modified or replaced with minimal system impact, which means operators can control the design process and make changes independently from Saab with parts such as computers, displays, sensors and weapons, procured from elsewhere. But the most key enabling systems, including all systems that are deemed strategically vital, can actually be delivered by other Saab business areas.

To make Gripen a future-proof fighter, Saab also keeps a track on the technological advances and trends that have potential. Lisa Åbom, Chief Technology Officer, Business Area Aeronautics at Saab, recently said at the Gripen seminar held in Stockholm, Sweden, that the inspiration for Gripen development and upgrade comes from outside the aeronautics area as well - like the automotive industry, artificial intelligence in general, the gaming industry, and nanotechnology, to name a few. 

“Up until 2050-2060, Gripen will continuously be enhanced with the latest technologies. And that stands true for both the actual platform and other platforms flying in combination with Gripen that could be manned or unmanned,” says Lisa.

Last, but not the least, environmental considerations have also been addressed in designing Gripen of the future. Saab has already conducted test flights using 100 per cent biofuel and manufacturing processes are constantly being enhanced to make them more environmentally sustainable.

“I’m imagining what could be feasible with this aircraft well beyond my own retirement, in a timeframe far into the future, because Gripen is being constantly enhanced and improved,” says Övrebö.