- Mar 8, 2013
Note: it is recommended to read the “Lessons of Air War in Ukraine” prior to reading this article.
Ukraine, no matter how well it may be doing against Russia, is losing aircraft. And it will need replacement, be it during the war or afterwards. Currently, Ukraine is still using old Soviet Su-27 and MiG-29 fighters – somewhat updated, but still badly outdated.
Some places still have old Su-27s and MiG-29s available, and that is what is currently being sent. But sending MiG-29s does not help with the issues Ukraine is facing with the Russian technological advantage. It might help if MiG-29s were completely retooled – equipped with modern Western radar, IRST, EW suite, weapons and engines – but at that point, one might just send a completely new aircraft. Numbers of available old Soviet aircraft in NATO countries are also quite limited, and most have been updated with sensitive NATO technology which makes them unsuitable for Ukraine.
One of options for Ukraine to replace aircraft losses is F-16. But neither F-16 nor other USAF aircraft – F-15, F-35 – would make much sense, or be a good solution for Ukraine. Ukraine cannot match Russian Air Force fighter for fighter, no matter the help it is provided, so all the concepts previously described still apply: fighter would have to be good at operating from badly maintained runways and road bases, and have relatively small logistical footprint.
As discussed in the “Lessons of Air War in Ukraine” however, Gripen may well be the best fighter aircraft for Ukraine – at least if one ignores politics and availability, both which would likely mean no deliveries before the end of the war.
This document points out following requirements:
- equipped with a missile capable of offering the greatest possible effective range under low-altitude, subsonic launch conditions
- significant electronic warfare capabilities
- jamming-resistant radar
- capable of operating from dispersed, relatively basic airbases to prevent them being located and rapidly destroyed by Russian long-range missile strikes
- ability to be serviced with limited personnel and heavy equipment, and to operate from relatively rough and short runway surfaces
- anti-shipping capabilities
- able to generate high sortie rates from both an availability and affordability perspective
While West is insisting on sophisticated fighter aircraft, this may not be sustainable in the long run. Last four produced F-22s cost 137 million USD and may have been gotten down to 85 million USD, which is about what F-35 costs now. Average price was 213 million USD once non-recurring costs are accounted for (187 F-22s, 70 billion USD program cost of which 30 billion USD non-recurring costs and 40 billion USD recurring costs). For comparison, F-15EX costs 117 million USD recurring unit flyaway. Gripen C costs less than 60 million USD.
But that is just the beginning. Gripen C has flight cost per hour of some 5 000 USD, while E comes in at 8 000 USD. F-35A for comparison has cost per hour of more than 33 000 USD. This is the consequence of Western Douhetian strategy of “shooting the archer”: which today means using stealth fighters and bombers to carry out deep strikes against the enemy targets. But as war in Ukraine has shown, unmanned vehicles can be used to fill in this niche, at least to an extent. Low operating cost is necessary for Ukraine because its economy had been devastated by the war. Of course, it is always possible that Ukraine would opt to buy aircraft for prestige instead of requirements, as Croatia did, but that would hardly be an optimal solution.
Gripen would have massive advantage in terms of sortie generation compared to MiG-29. It is much smaller, single-engined fighter that is designed for ease of maintenance. By comparison, MiG-29 is very maintenance-intensive aircraft designed to operate under centralized control system. It is not intended to fly long sorties, or to fly them often.
In terms of training, pilots of multirole fighters require between 360 and 540 hours of flight time per year to maintain their skills. While simulators can help, they can never replace the real flight. Currently, Western pilots generally fly 180 to 240 flight hours per year, yet they consider it insufficient to maintain multirole combat readiness. Here again, Gripen comes in ahead because it is both cheaper to fly and easier to maintain than most and perhaps all of its competitors.
There is also the fact that infrastructure of Ukrainian air fields is not adapted to maintenance of aircraft such as US teen-series fighters. While such aircraft may be an option after the war, during the war their introduction would be impractical to say the least. There is one advantage F-16 in particular would bring: there are some 3 000 F-16s in operational service all across the world. While Gripen is far easier to maintain on a per-fighter basis, sourcing spares and supplies for a fleet of F-16s would be much easier due to far greater number of fighters in service. It would have to have Meteor missile integrated in order to face Russian jets on an even footing, something which would require time and money both, but majority of air combat over Ukraine consists of intercepting enemy attack helicopters and ground attack aircraft.
But the operating costs are merely tip of the iceberg. The reason why they were mentioned at all is their implication on aircraft survivability. Greater operating costs generally mean that aircraft requires more support in terms of spare parts, personnel and fuel. All of this increases logistical footprint. American aircraft in particular require extensive logistical support apparatus to maintain the operational tempo, which means large, cozy and extremely vulnerable air bases. They also need large numbers of highly skilled ground crews and technicians and lots of extremely specialized equipment. And lastly, all American aircraft are designed to operate from long, wide and well-maintained runways. They simply do not have the aerodynamics, airframe or undercarriage for STOL and rough field operations – even F-35 STOVL variant is designed to operate from amphibious assault ship decks and not from road bases, much less halfway-to-gravel dispersal air fields being used by Ukraine. If Ukraine were to use USAF aircraft, their own airstrips may well prove greater danger than Russian fighters.
And in modern conditions, especially those faced by Ukraine, flying such fragile aircraft can be lethal. Cruise missiles and drones can make and did make large centralized air bases largely unviable, or else demand extreme concentration of air defenses to protect them. Russian missiles and loitering munitions are an ever-present threat to any sort of fixed positions. Ukrainian fighters thus were forced to operate from dispersal fields and road bases. Ukrainians had also been forced to push their aircraft above and beyond to maintain sortie rate – something as maintenance-heavy as US fighters would significantly limit their ability to keep aircraft in the air. Thus any Western aircraft used by Ukraine has to be capable of dispersed operations, using mobile maintenance crews, and able to relocate quickly.
Gripen is in fact the only Western aircraft that is designed to operate from improvised bases and short runways in combat conditions. The only other multirole aircraft designed with that capability are Soviet/Russian Flanker and Fulcrum families of aircraft (as well as the Su-25 ground attack aircraft), but Russia is somewhat unlikely to sell them to Ukraine in current political and strategic environment. It should however be noted that while US F-18 Hornet fighter was not designed with road base operations in mind, Finland has successfully utilized it in this capability. Therefore, if Gripen is – for political or strategic reasons – unavailable for Ukraine, either F-18 or Rafale M would be the best alternative, with F-16 or Rafale C as the third-place contender and the F-35B a distant fourth.
Gripen is also much cheaper and easier to maintain than either Western or Soviet fighters. To operate from road base, Gripen needs a team of six people, of whom only one needs to be highly trained while the rest can be conscripts or even regular infantry. Recruits can be trained in maintenance in less than a year, whereas three years are necessary in most other air forces. And the entire maintenance and support toolkit can be packed into trucks (two per aircraft) and deployed literally anywhere. APU is powerful enough to run all the tests and perform a cold start with no external power. All of this is necessary for sustained operations away from air bases – merely having STOL / STOVL capability is not enough. Aircraft and their entire support apparatus must be a) able to operate away from major air bases for long periods of time, and b) able to quickly redeploy to another location should situation demand it. As a result, Gripen can be concealed on trails, highways or areas hidden in the forrest. Most US jets are not capable of this, as they require extensive ground support equipment which would be difficult to provide in road bases, and difficult to relocate before being hit. Survivability is further enhanced by short turnaround time: 10 minutes for air-to-air mission, 15 – 20 minutes for a strike mission, and 1 hour for engine change. For comparison, engine change takes 2 hours in F-16 and a whopping 8 hours in F-35.
Here again, should Gripen not be an option, aircraft designed for carrier operations are a good second choice. Their maintenance equipment tends to be more compact, and aircraft themselves should – in theory – be designed for easier maintenance than their ground-based counterparts. But even there, runway length is a constricting requirement. Gripen can operate from runways 600 meters long, while F-22 and F-35 require runway length of 7 000 ft or 2 130 meters – more than three times that of Gripen. Even F-18 requires runway that is no less than 5 200 ft (1 584 meters), or more than twice Gripen’s requirement. Of course, due to Gripen being small and relatively underpowered, difference will shrink with heavier loads such as ground attack munitions, but for air defense duties these numbers are highly indicative. Width of the runway should also be considered: while Gripen requires runway to be some 16 meters wide, other aircraft have a much greater wing span and thus minimum width requirement. Specifically, wing span is 8,4 meters for Gripen C and 9,96 meters for F-16C – but F-16C is unsuitable for road basing due to narrow and relatively flimsy undercarriage. Other fighters on the list have even larger wing span: 10,7 meters for F-35A and F-35B, 13,1 meters for F-35C, 13,62 meters for F-18C, and 14 meters for F-18E. Rafale has wing span of 10,8 meters.
Tactically, Gripen has one of the best Electronic Warfare suites in the world, designed specifically to deal with Russian Flankers. It also has low radar cross section and very low infrared signature.
Situational Awareness and C4ISR
As noted in the previous article, “One major flaw in Russian aircraft performance was lack of higher quality technology – sensors and computers – which has impacted their ability to maintain battlefield awareness, gather intelligence, and perform in the electronic warfare and supression of enemy air defences.”. Gripen meanwhile is one of the best fighter aircraft in the world when it comes to electronic warfare and aircraft-to-pilot interface. This means that Gripen pilots will have much better awareness of who is near or around them than pilots in Russian aircraft, and be better able to react to pop-up threats without help from AWACS.
As discussed previously, much of the combat in Ukraine is happening at low altitude. This is highly disadvantageous for aircraft launching missile, as it severely limits the missile range – especially against a high-flying target. Gripen’s usage of ramjet Meteor missile would alleviate this disadvantage.
Gripen in fact is designed precisely for low-level air superiority. Swedish intent was to deploy a large number of fighters from scattered air bases, dispersal fields and road bases, flying at low altitude to avoid radars. These actions would be carried out continuously so that the enemy would not know at which airport there are fighters at any given time. And these tactics have significant similarity to what Ukrainian Air Force is doing right now.
Gripen’s relatively limited combat radius is no issue. Most of the missions flown by the Ukrainian Air Force involve local interception of one threat or other, with response time rather than range being at a premium.
Air combat over Ukraine is done primarily beyond visual range. And Gripen actually has advantage over Flankers in that environment. In 2015. exercises between Chinese and Thai air forces, Gripen beat Chinese J-11 fighters (based on Su-27) in the beyond visual range exercise with a score of 41:9 in Gripens’ favor. Gripen’s small radar cross section and excellent electronic warfare suite give it advantage in this arena. This is especially significant because Gripen can utilize MBDA Meteor ramjet BVR missile, which has much greater effective range than traditional rocket-propelled missiles such as R-27 or AIM-120. Ukrainian fighters had been disadvantaged in air combat due to need to fly at low altitude to avoid both Russian SAMs and Russian fighters’ radars. Their traditional missiles are ineffective in such conditions, something Meteor would help alleviate.
Lack of advanced fighter radars and active air-to-air missiles was a major disadvantage to Ukrainian Air Force, and that is something Gripen would help alleviate. Gripen C/D and E/F all have (or can mount) a swashplate AESA radar. This radar provides greater range than mechanical or PESA radar, while allowing the fighter to turn away while still tracking the target – something that is not possible with mechanical, PESA or fixed-plate AESA radar.
Gripen with Meteor may also provide the capability to counter the Russian hypersonic R-37M long-range air-to-air missile. This missile is carried by Su-35 and MiG-31, and with range of 124 miles can threaten Ukrainian aircraft even when fired from within Russian airspace. While it is largely ineffective against fighter aircraft which can relatively easily evade it, its presence still constrains possible actions that can be taken by the Ukrainian Air Force. Despite the lack of hard kills scored by R-37M and other long-range air-to-air missiles, attacks still force Ukrainian pilots to break away from their planned flight paths, and may also force the ground attack aircraft to dump their munitions. In fact, even in terms of hard kills, MiG-31BM equipped with R-37M has performed better than average, having shot down several Ukrainian aircraft. While the missile may be easy to evade, it is still deadly if targeted aircraft is caught by surprise or unawares.
One of major missions for Su-27 and MiG-29 fighters in Ukraine is usage of HARM to hunt enemy radars. This often forces them to turn off the radar, but the effect is limited to systems closest to potentially HARM-carrying fighters. And of course, systems such as PANTSIR that use electro-optical systems are immune to anti-radiation missiles.
Gripen has an extensive and effective electronic warfare suite as well as significant standoff capacity. It is also capable of carrying electronic warfare pods, acting much like EA-18G Growler. And while HARM and similar weapons can be integrated into Su-27 and MiG-29, the integration would be difficult due to both the jets’ age and lack of compatibility. Either HARM or Western air-to-air missiles would be much less capable if integrated on Ukrainian fleet of existing Soviet-era fighters compared to how they would perform integrated into modern Western fighter aircraft.
In order to facilitate ground attack, any fighter procured has to be capable of standoff attacks.
Gripen would be ideal fighter for Ukraine, but with caveats – in ideal conditions, with a time travelling device so as to procure it in 2014., or after the war. As it is however, F-16 or F-18 may well be a better choice, even if they would be less optimal from operational standpoint.
AAA – anti-aircraft artillery
AdlA – Armee de l’Air (Army of the Air, name of the French Air Force)
AESA – Active Electronically Scanned Array, a radar where beam is directed by controlled interferrence, allowing for instantaneous retargeting
APU – auxilliary power unit
AWACS – airborne warning and control system
BVR – beyond visual range
C2 – command and control
C4ISR – command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance
CAP – combat air patrol
CAS – close air support
DEAD – destruction of enemy air defenses
ELINT – electronic intelligence
EW – electronic warfare
FLIR – forward looking infrared
HARM – high speed anti radiation missile
IADS – intergated air defense system
ISR – intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance
MANPADS – man-portable air defense system
NATO – North Atlantic Treaty Organization
PESA – Passive Electronically Scanned Array, a radar where beam is directed by controlled interferrence, allowing for instantaneous retargeting. Unlike AESA which has multiple transmitters, PESA has only one large transmitter module
PGM – precision guided munition(s)
SAM – surface-to-air missile
SEAD – supression of enemy air defenses
STOL – short takeoff and landing
STOVL – short takeoff and vertical landing
TWS – track while scan, a radar mode which allows radar to provide missile guidance information while still scanning the aerospace for new targets
UAF – Ukrainian Air Force
UAV – Unmanned Aerial Vehicle
UCAV – Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicle
YGBSM – You Gotta Be Shitting Me, unofficial motto of the “Wild Weasel” squadrons when told of their new mission as SAM baits