Shark tail Gripens

MILITARY JAS 39 GRIPEN

Chen Chuanren visited the Royal Thai Air Force’s JAS 39 Gripenequipped Wing 7 to take a look around

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Two Royal Thai Air Force JAS 39Ds at Darwin, Australia during Exercise Pitch Black 2018.
Chen Chuanren

Thailand’s air defence is the responsibility of the Royal Thai Air Force (RTAF) operating aircraft and systems at 11 air bases situated around four main regions: North, North Eastern, Central and Southern. Established in 1982, the Air Force’s Wing 7 based at Surat Thani is responsible for defending Thailand’s entire Southern region.

The Southern region is a strategic area of Thailand; to the west is the Andaman Sea, the entrance to the important Malacca Straits, and in the east, the Gulf of Thailand. Both areas are lifelines to the Kingdom, important not only for sea-lanes, but also oil and fishery resources.

Turn the clock back to 2006, and the then RTAF leadership envisioned the need to develop a network centric air force, and to be one of the leading air arms in South East Asia. The RTAF embarked on a fighter replacement programme that sought to develop the required capability and also to replace its ageing F-5E and F-5B Tiger fleets. A two-horse race emerged, between the Russian Sukhoi Su-30MKI and the Swedish Saab JAS 39 Gripen.

A joint effort led by Sweden’s Försvarets Materiel Verk (FMV or Defence Material Administration) and Saab, the Swedes offered a Phase 1 package comprising two JAS 39Cs, four JAS 39Ds, a command-and-control datalink system, upgrade of three radio sites, and necessary training and logistics support.

According to Martin Mann, Program Director, Gripen for Thailand, the FMV threw in a former Svenska Flygvapnet Saab 340 Erieye airborne early warning (AEW) aircraft and a Saab 340 transport to sweeten the deal. Thailand signed a contract with the FMV worth THB 19 billion in February 2008. Dubbed the Peace Suvarnabhumi I (PS I) programme, training of the first four RTAF pilots began in Sweden from mid-2009.

Sharks

The first six Gripen aircraft were delivered in February 2011 and assigned to 701 Squadron ‘Sharks’, one of two squadrons in Wing 7. Shortly after declaring full operational capability in 2011, Thailand signed for another batch of six JAS 39Cs, a Saab 340 Erieye and a bunch of RBS15F anti-ship missiles under Peace Suvarnabhumi II. The fighters were delivered in two batches of three, arriving in country during April and September 2013.

Air superiority is the primary role of 701 Squadron, which takes on almost all aspects of the role, including interception and air defence due to Gripen’s capability.

Quick reaction alert is an essential component of air superiority and dependent on the threat level assigned by the RTAF; the alert posture can elevate to five minutes between alarm and wheels-up.

Wing 7 Deputy Commander Group Captain Prachya Tippayarat said the Gripen is a true multirole aircraft and as a result the squadron takes on air-to-surface roles, a leap in capability from its F-5 Tiger predecessor.

Another secondary role is reconnaissance, especially fisheries protection, for which Gripen uses the Rafael Litening III pod to gather imagery of suspected illegal fishing activities in Thailand’s exclusive economic zone.

Details gathered by the Litening pod include the names of ships and the methods of fishing conducted by them, which are passed to the respective maritime agencies for enforcement. Tippayarat revealed the RTAF employs specific Gripen tactics and credited Gripen’s extremely flexible and user-friendly mission system that allows the RTAF to adapt its aircraft easily to the nation’s geography and operational requirements.

The RTAF has yet to use the Gripen’s aerial refuelling capability as much as it would like, simply because the Air Force does not possess any tankers. To overcome the capability short fall, the Republic of Singapore Air Force assists the RTAF with aerial refuelling training with its KC-135Rs during exercises like Cope Tiger.

Wing Commander Kritsana Sukdee, 701 Squadron’s Commanding Officer said such training helps pilots to familiarise themselves with aerial refuelling procedures. He added: “As the Gripen fleet was procured as a defensive asset, any RTAF tanking capability might be deemed too offiensive.”

Training and sustainment

Three groups of RTAF pilots went to Såtenäs Air Base for training with F7; the initial cadre in 2009 comprised four instructor pilots, followed by a second group of six pilots in 2010, and finally the third group, comprising three pilots, in 2012. A fourth group started their training in Thailand assisted by Svenska Flygvapnet pilots.

There are currently 31 qualified Gripen pilots in the RTAF, most of whom transitioned from the F-5 and F-16, each with a substantial number of flying hours under their belt. Most of the Gripen pilots qualified as combat ready in seven months or less. Discussing time needed to qualify, Tippayarat confirmed that one of the newer pilots had 50 hours on the F-16 at the time he transferred to Gripen, an example of how the number of flying hours required has reduced. Wing 7’s Deputy Commander expects to see ab initio pilots joining 701 Squadron once the RTAF T-50 unit starts a Gripen conversion course.

At Surat Thani, the squadron operates a virtual mission training simulator with a 360° projection dome, but no full motion capability. Sukdee said the level of realism and fidelity of the simulator is so high that simulator sickness is much less common. Consequently, pilots can go fly the jet without an eight-hour rest as required with other types’ simulator.

Most training missions are flown over the Gulfs of Thailand and Andaman, and north to the Chandy and Nampong ranges for air-toground training. Because the Gripen’s weapon interface for various armaments is similar there is no requirement for specific weapon certification, meaning all pilots can be easily trained to one standard.

Armaments

Currently, RTAF Gripens are certified to carry the AIM-120C AMRAAM, AIM-9M Sidewinder and Diehl Defence IRIS-T air-to-air missiles; the latter is the preferred short-range option because of its high off -boresight and infrared imaging capabilities.

In January 2018, 701 Squadron dropped a live GBU-12 laser-guided bomb self-designated by the Litening III pod during a live drop at the Chandy range: a first in the unit’s air-to-ground and air-to-surface capabilities.

Before Gripen entered service, the RTAF used the AGM-65 Maverick missile to meet its air-tosurface requirement, but Gripen introduced the Saab RBS15 anti-ship missile, a weapon that has a greater stand-off range and firepower than the older AGM-65 missile.

Tippayarat added that Thailand’s Gripens are certified to carry many standard NATO weapons and there will always be plans to integrate other munitions, such as the Israeli Python 4 missile that is already carried by the F-5E and F-5F Tiger II.

Orcas

The RTAF became the second air arm in South East Asia to acquire an AEW capability when it received a Saab 340 Erieye in 2010.

Thailand’s first Erieye arrived at Surat Thani for 702 Squadron ‘Orcas’ before the first Gripens were delivered; the second Erieye arrived in 2012. Both aircraft were modernised and upgraded with extra features by Saab at the company’s Linkoping facility.

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Flying high.
Stefan Kalm/Saab Aerospace
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JAS 39D 70103 at Surat Thani Air Base loaded with two RBS15 anti-ship missiles, and two short-range IRIS-T air-to-air missiles.
Chen Chuanren
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Saab Aerospace

Three more Saab 340s were purchased from an unknown airline in the United States, one of which was converted to an electronic/communication intelligence configuration; the aircraft was likely modified by a local contractor.

Although Saab offered the Link-T tactical datalink to the RTAF for its Erieye aircraft, the service opted for a different concept of operations. Instead of direct aircraftto- aircraft radar feeds sent to Gripens via Link-T, Erieye downlinks to a ground-based command-and-control unit before data is uplinked to the respective fighters.

Erieye’s PS-890 radar can perform longrange, high-definition air-to-air and airto- surface surveillance over water. It is not optimised for ground targets over land. An Erieye pilot told AIR International that the PS-890 provides the RTAF the ability to detect fighter aircraft and ships at ranges of 160 and 215 nautical miles (300 and 400km) respectively, and covers ground-based radar blind spots, especially in hilly regions. Thai Erieyes are operated by a crew comprising two pilots, a radar operator, a radar technician and an aircraft technician.

Link-T

The RTAF’s Link-T tactical datalink system is part of a greater Air Combat and Command System based on Saab’s awkwardly named 9AIR C4I Tactical Operations Command and Control System. The link was developed by Avia Saab Technologies, a joint venture between Saab and Thai company Savia Satcom.

Link-T gives the RTAF a unique and sovereign datalink encryption capability between air, ground and sea-based systems. Thailand has full encryption rights and autonomy on the usage of Link-T that is currently used by three RTAF assets: Erieye, Gripen and the ground C2 centres. Other platforms are set to receive the data link, most notably Korea Aerospace Industries T-50s and upgraded F-5E and F-5F Super Tigris.

Recently upgraded RTAF F-16A and F-16B MLUs did not receive Link-T and continue with Link 16. Even though Link-T and Link 16 are not compatible with each other, Tippayarat reckons interoperability with other air arms and platforms has not been affected. He said: “With a good plan and a good contract prior to the mission, it is easy to execute even if we don’t have Link 16. Link-T has moved national defence in the right direction; we have to stand alone and have a national link.”

On that national link are two Royal Thai Navy Naresuan-class frigates and the carrier Chakri Naruebet, and the six new DW-3000F frigates will also be Link-T capable.

In the past, Tippayarat said the RTAF used voice radio to communicate with Navy ships, which took a while to verify which tracks were enemy ships and aircraft. With Link-T an aircraft can see what the ship is seeing: “It’s like having floating radar sites on the ocean.”

The Royal Thai Army is also in the process of integrating Link-T to its assets, and once Gripens are upgraded with MS20 software, the jets will be able to conduct close air support using digital systems.

Maintenance

Thailand is the first nation to base and operate the JAS 39 Gripen in a tropical, hot and humid environment; Surat Thani regularly reaches temperatures in excess of 30°C, with a daily average humidity of 70%. Citing an initial problem with the environmental control system valve, Tippayarat said: “We had some initial climatic issues.” Sweden’s FMV and Saab provided a number of modifications to rectify the problem provided under a support programme designated by the RTAF as the Gripen Logistics Improvement Programme. Surat Thani Air Base is located close to the coast with the Gulf of Thailand with a high salty environment, yet the squadron does not wash its aircraft with fresh water after routine flying, and only does so to check for leaks prior to maintenance.

Spares support to the RTAF is provided by Saab under contract to the FMV which also provides and manages the Gripen pooling programme which covers items like line replacement units. Defective parts are replaced and only returned to Sweden for overhaul if the work required is outside of the stipulated process in the technical publications. The pooling programme provides the Wing with guaranteed parts at a lower cost, and has also reduced the logistics footprint in Thailand by avoiding the need to store a full inventory of spares.

The FMV also provides the pooling programme to the Vzdušné síly armády Ceské republiky (Czech Air Force), Magyar Légierö (Hungarian Air Force) and the Svenska Flygvapnet (Swedish Air Force).

Group Captain Pichead Buanlee, 701 Squadron’s maintenance chief, pointed out that all RTAF Gripen technicians have to have the same level of competency as other Gripen nations, because of membership of the pooling system: “Hence, all of our technicians who can sign off tasks are trained in Sweden. We also have mechanics, trained in Thailand, who are able to assist these technicians.”

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Easy in the turn.
Stefan Kalm/Saab Aerospace

Sweden’s FMV also provided a dozen Svenska Flygvapnet engineers to assist with aircraft maintenance during the initial months of flight operations at Surat Thani. By the end of 2018, only three Swedish engineers remained at Surat Thani largely because of a much higher competency level of the RTAF’s cadre of engineers and technicians Group Captain Buanlee confirmed that almost all Gripen maintenance can be carried out in the purpose built Gripen hangar at Surat Thani. The hangar was constructed in accordance with the detailed plans provided by the FMV.

Foreign encounters

RTAF Gripens have deployed overseas on just two occasions, each time to participate in the Australian Pitch Black exercise.

Appearances at Pitch Black allowed RTAF pilots to evaluate Gripen’s ability to integrate into a multinational large force exercise, and to validate the RTAF’s logistical capability to support high-tempo flight operations at an overseas location for a prolonged period of time. Six Gripens deployed to Darwin, Northern Territory via Singapore and Bali in the 2014 and 2018 editions of Pitch Black. Last year’s edition proved a good one for 701 Squadron; its Gripens posted a 100% mission availability rate for a total of 217 tasked sorties. This was the highest availability rate posted amongst all of the participating nations and 2% higher than that posted in 2014.

Thailand’s annual Cope Tiger, a large force exercise primarily focused on air combat, involves the RTAF, US Air Force and the Republic of Singapore Air Force. Cope Tiger is probably the only multinational event in which the Erieye AEW aircraft participates with similar types; the American E-3 Sentry and Singapore’s Gulfstream G550 AEW.

Impressive as Pitch Black and Cope Tiger are, unquestionably the greatest opportunity for the RTAF Gripen force is Falcon Strike, an exercise with the People’s Liberation Army Air Force. Three editions have already taken place involving PLAAF Shengyang J-11s (Flankers), and more recently, Chengdu J-10s. The RTAF is the only western air arm to conduct regular drills with the People’s Liberation Army Air Force and has participated with its Gripens. Group Captain Tippayarat described Falcon Strike as eye-opening: “We feel privileged and have learnt a lot from the PLAAF, and beyond the flying, the friendship developed is very important, as well.”

Next step

Group Captain Tippayarat described the Gripen as a great aircraft, and expressed a desire to have more, but highlighted that “further procurement depends on the budget allocation around ten other RTAF Wings, and that the squadron is doing a lot with its remaining 11 aircraft”. The 12th aircraft, a JAS 39C, and its pilot were lost on January 14, 2017, while performing an aerial display at an event near Surat Thani. Investigators from the RTAF, FMV and Saab concluded pilot spatial disorientation was the probable cause of the incident. Group Captain Tippayarat reckons the RTAF is looking for a replacement aircraft. The Wing 7 Deputy Commander detailed how, in 2017, a team of RTAF Gripen pilots visited Kecskemét Air Base, Hungary, home of the Magyar Légierö’s Gripen-equipped 1. Vadászrepülö Század to witness the capability of the MS20 upgrade; a capability Wing 7 hopes to receive prior to the possible future procurement of JAS 39E Gripens.

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Saab Aerospace has supplied the RTAF with JAS 39 Gripen fighters and Saab 340-based Erieye airborne early warning aircraft.
Peter Liander/Saab Aerospace