Almost five years after the Brazilian Air Force (FAB) sealed the purchase of the new generation of Swedish Gripen fighter jets, the first aircraft is ready for flight. As of August, it is expected to take off from the Saab AB airport in Linköping—some 220 kilometers from the Stockholm—beginning its phase of test flights. This is the final stage before the jets are delivered, which should occur in 2021. Until then, the aircraft will undergo an exhaustive series of examinations, putting all of its systems and components to the test.
The purchase of the Gripen E (single-seat) and F (two-seater) craft was made official on October 24, 2014, after a process which lasted over a decade. The jet was awarded the contract from the FX-2 Program, intended to modernize Brazil’s fighter jet fleet. Other competitors included Boeing’s F/A-18 E/F Super Hornet and Dassault’s Rafale F3.
The Swedish craft will immediately substitute the now obsolete Mirage F-2000 of the FAB (which have already been decommissioned) and in the medium- and long-term they will also replace the F-5M and A-1M jets. The 36 jets (28 one-seaters and 8 two-seaters) cost SEK 39.3 billion—the equivalent of USD 4.1 billion or BRL 15.5 billion.
The last aircraft will be delivered to the FAB in 2024. “The Gripen E/F is an excellent fourth-generation fighter, it has great performance and was designed to be relatively cheap, easy to maintain, and quick enough to combat any aggressor,” said Álvaro Martins Abdalla, specialist in aircraft at the São Carlos Engineering School of the University of São Paulo (EESC-USP).
The Saab plane, with similar performance to its competitors, won out thanks to two principal factors, the first being its price. “In terms of operational costs and the total value of the transaction, the Gripen E/F was a wise choice. It is one of the cheapest fighter jets on the market, with a good radar and supersonic speeds,” highlighted Richard Abouafia, aeronautic industry analyst and vice president of the Teal Group, a North American consultancy specializing in the aerospace and defense sectors.
“However, I believe that it would have made more sense to choose the F/A-18E/F if Brazil wanted jets to work from Navy aircraft carriers, and not only to serve the Air Force.” The second aspect which swung the balance in favor of the Swedes was the offset agreement offered by Saab—valued at USD 9 billion—including investments in industrial facilities in Brazil and the training of Brazilian engineers and pilots in Sweden.
The agreement also included a technology transfer program in favor of the FAB and Brazilian companies, and promised the participation of Brazilian industry (led by Embraer) in the development of the aircraft. Unlike the other candidates, the Swedish project was not finished, and was still in progress.
“The key point in the choice of the Gripen is that is was still in development. Therefore, FAB engineers and Brazilian companies were able to take part in the project and build the craft with the Swedes, making the transfer of technology more effective,” said economist Marcos José Barbieri Ferreira, coordinator of the Laboratory of Aerospace and Defense Industry Studies of the Campinas State University (Unicamp).
“Brazil wouldn’t merely absorb an already consolidated technology … it would take part in the construction of this new knowledge.” Air Force colonel Fernando Abrahão—the first manager of the FX-2 Program in 2008 and professor of the Air Force Technological Institute (ITA)—agrees with Mr. Barbieri, but highlights that Brazil’s delay in signing the contract with Saab limited the participation of domestic industry in the development of the Gripen E/F. In 2010, a report from the FAB already highlighted the Swedish jet as being ahead of the other candidates.
The decision was only announced in December 2013, and another ten months were needed to work out details and sign contracts. “The use of the strong points of the Gripen [agreement] … would have had a higher potential for success if the acquisition contract had been signed in 2010, and not 2014. In four years, various technologies can change,” stressed Mr. Abrahão.
Program limitations The offset program established the transfer of technologies in areas identified by both the Air Force and Brazilian industries—particularly the aerospace sector. “It is the biggest [offset] agreement linked to a contract to acquire defense products for the FAB,” said Air Force colonel Paulo Roberto de Carvalho Júnior, the current manager of the FX-2 Program and member of the Coordinating Committee of the Fighter Jet Program (Copac), the Air Force agency in charge of the deal.
The Air Force official explains that Saab is the owner of the Gripen project, but Brazilian industry will reap the benefits. “Many requirements of the new Gripen will be exclusively Brazil’s intellectual property,” said Mr. Carvalho. One critique made of the technology transfer program is that over half of the jets’ components are made in other countries, principally the U.S.
This factor could pose an impediment for more effective transfer of technology, as these items would have a license or patent restrictions. The FAB and Saab, however, deny that this will be the case. According to the Swedish company, the project of a jet such as the Gripen involves a set of critical and sensitive technologies which are specific to the aircraft manufacturer, such as cell projects, aeronautic integration, and systems (such as radars and weapons).
“All of these are in the scope of technology transfers to Brazil. These are the capabilities which, once transferred, will allow Brazilian industries to maintain and update the jets, as well as project future generation aircraft,” explained Mikael Franzén, Gripen Brasil head of business and vice president of the Saab Aeronautics business division. According to Richard Aboulafia, restrictions on technology transfer occur in any aerospace program.
“The truly valuable technology stays with the manufacturer. And, even if it was transferred, what difference would it make? General Electric could give Brazil lots of information about the F414 motor used by the Gripen, but what would the country do with it? On the other hand, the technology transfer program may involve know-how associated with manufacturing processes, and this could be very useful,” said the specialist.
Brazilian involvement Besides Embraer and the Aerospace Science and Technology Department (DCTA) of the Air Force, five Brazilian companies will benefit from the technology transfer program: Akaer, from São José dos Campos, Saab Aeronáutica Montagens (SAM), from São Bernardo do Campo, Atech and Atmos Sistemas, both from São Paulo, and AEL Sistemas, from Porto Alegre.
The technology transfer process of the Gripen program involves 62 projects divided into four main areas: theoretical training of the Brazilian teams involved, research and technology programs, on-the-job training for Brazilian professionals in the Saab factory in Sweden, and the development and production of systems and aircraft.
More than 350 members of Brazilian companies and the FAB—among them engineers, operators, technicians, and pilots—will take part in courses and training in Sweden. Until August, 170 engineers had already been trained in Linköping. Most are working at the Center of Gripen Projects and Development (GDDN), located alongside Embraer facilities in Gavião Peixoto, in the state of São Paulo. Inaugurated in 2016, the GDDN is the jet’s technological development hub in Brazil. “Today, 123 engineers—105 Brazilians and 18 Swedes—are working at the center, which has simulators and everything necessary for the development of the jets,” said Embraer, by way of its press office.
From the total of 36 fighter jets, 23 will be partially or totally assembled in São Paulo state, in work led by Embraer. “Saab is responsible for assembling 13 Gripen units in Sweden. Another eight aircraft will begin to be manufactured in Linköping and then finished in Brazil with the participation of Brazilian technicians and engineers,” highlighted Mikael Franzén. As of 2021, 15 aircraft will be produced entirely at Embraer in Gavião Peixoto, with the first jet to be delivered to the FAB three years later.
One of the main Brazilian contributions for the new Gripen jet are the screens which will be fitted in the jet cabins. These are displays developed and produced by AEL Sistemas, a subsidiary of Israeli company Elbit Systems, on which the pilot will be able to access all information related to the flight. Initially, the idea is that they would only be used on FAB jets, but Saab confirmed last year that they will also be installed on the 60 Gripen E/F craft purchased by the Swedish Air Force, the first delivery of which will be made next year.
“With the harmonization of the Brazilian and Swedish programs, AEL became part of the global production chain of Gripen jets. All future orders will include the WAD, HUD, and HMD displays, developed by us, using technologies from Brazil, Israel, and Sweden,” said reserve Air Force colonel João Alexandro Braga Maciel Vilela, manager of the company’s Business Development area.
The Wide Area Display (WAD) is a panoramic high-definition touchscreen which includes all of the main data of the flight. It will substitute a set of smaller screens which were initially intended to be used on the aircraft. Meanwhile, the Head-Up Display (HUD) will show essential mission data directly on the frontal part of the cockpit, within the pilot’s line of sight. The Helmet Mounted Display (HMD), in turn, is a visor integrated into the helmet of pilots, allowing him/her to see data and images of targets, increasing the ability to take decisions.
The supply of these technologies to Saab promotes an inverse transfer of technology and is an example of how the industrial partnership between the Swedish company and its Brazilian counterparts has gone beyond the initial agreement. Fuselage projects Another important cooperation in the scope of the Gripen Project was established with Akaer. In 2009, before the Gripen purchase was completed, the company from São José dos Campos was chosen by Saab to be one of its international partners in the Gripen development program.
“In the phase of preliminary studies we worked with the rear and central fuselages, on the wings and the motor doors and the main landing gear. Since 2011, we have been responsible for the complete dimensioning of the real fuselage, as well as the detailing and documentation of engineering of the central fuselage and the segment known as the gun unit,” said materials engineer Fernando Coelho Ferraz, vice president of operations at Akaer.
“The development of a fighter jet is a unique opportunity both for the professionals involved and for Akaer and Brazil. The technologies of this aircraft do not exist in the country and make the transfer program very important,” Mr. Ferraz declared. The success of the partnership led to Saab acquiring 15 percent of Akaer ownership capital in 2012, later increasing its equity to 25 percent. Last year, it increased its shares again, going to 28 percent, in a stock swap action, with Akaer getting 10 percent of Saab Aeronáutica Montagens (SAM).
Gripen flight simulators Specializing in air-traffic control solutions, Atech is absorbing Saab technologies in areas related to simulators and land support systems. “We are working on a simulator which validates the new functions incorporated to Brazilian jets, such as avionics, weapons, and second seats for two-seater models. Before being integrated into the plane, it should all be evaluated and validated in a virtual environment,” said engineer Giacomo Staniscia, director of Atech’s defense department, belonging to the Embraer group.
The company is also working on the project for a simulator for pilots, one that is more complex and functional than those used to train civil pilots, as well as a mission support system. “Before a military jet flies, its mission must be programmed, which includes setting the take-off point, establishing parameters of reconnaissance flights, determining the radars and weapons to be used.
This is planned beforehand, on land, on the system we are building with the Swedes,” said Mr. Staniscia. “The knowledge absorbed by the project is important as it trains us how to maintain and evolve the systems of a jet produced with top-of-the-line technology,” added electronic engineer André Di Luca Júnior, manager of Atech’s defense department.
“At the same time, it opens up opportunities to perfect out products further and offer high-tech solutions for the global market.” Mr. Di Luca says that the first phase of the technology transfer in Sweden with Atech employees began in May 2016, when 13 of their professionals had immersion training at Saab headquarters to get to know technological details. In the new stage, foreseen for next year, four other people will be sent to Linköping. The 17 professionals who take part in the project are engineers—half of them have master’s or Ph.Ds.