As the World Cup gets under-way in Brazil, another international contest was being waged over the skies of Lincolnshire and The North Sea, between RAF Typhoons of 41(R) Test and Evaluation Squadron and Saab JAS39 Gripens of the Operational Test and Evaluation Unit of the Swedish Air Force. Dave Gledhill went to RAF Coningsby to learn more.

Traditionally, operational squadrons have conducted flying exchanges but the concept of evaluation units flying together is quite rare.

In one of those “Isn’t the world a small place” moments, my first assignment for Global Aviation Resource finds me back in the same hangar where I started my fast jet flying career on the Phantom Operational Conversion Unit back in 1975. Now renamed “The Gleave Building” after a former commander, the hangar is home to the RAF’s fast jet test and evaluation unit.

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Ssab Gripen at RAF Coningsby – Dave Gledhill ©

No. 41 Squadron has a proud history. Formed in April 1916 at RAF Gosport it operated SE5a fighters and boasted 17 “aces” during World War 1. During the Battle of Britain it was equipped with Spitfires flying from Hornchurch and was heavily engaged in the action. Later in the war, on D-Day, it flew missions over the beaches of Normandy. With the advent of the jet age Meteors soon gave way to Hunters and then Phantoms and, in its last operational guise, it flew Jaguars in the reconnaissance role from RAF Coltishall.

Most recently it has become a test and evaluation squadron operating under the command of the Air Warfare Centre at RAF Waddington and is the amalgamation of a number of the former operational evaluation units (OEU). The Fast Jet and Weapons OEU was itself an amalgamation of the Strike Attack OEU and the Tornado F3 OEU, the units coming together in April 2006 and adopting the 41 Squadron numberplate. In parallel, the Typhoon OEU formed in May 2005 in the guise of No. 17 Sqn until it was absorbed into 41 Sqn in April 2013.

The unit now conducts integrated through-life testing for the Typhoon and Tornado GR4, encompassing the development testing and operational testing tasks formerly conducted by a variety of units. Once the manufacturer’s trials on a new system are completed, the unit begins to evaluate the update. Working closely with the design authority, as testing progresses, the emphasis shifts from simple switch on testing through “fitness for purpose” and into operational effectiveness against representative threats. The opponents it faces during this later stage range from instrumented threat radar systems to air-to-air opponents such as the Gripen. The TES pilots are drawn from all parts of the flying community and include test pilots, weapons instructors and front line pilots, using aircraft drawn from operational squadrons. Once allocated to 41 Sqn, the aircraft become “state of the art” examples of the operational airframes.

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41(R) Squadron Typhoon – Dave Gledhill ©

The Typhoon testing programme began well before the aircraft entered service in 2006 and included extensive testing of all aspects of the airframe and weapons system capabilities both in the UK and the USA. Each aspect was painstakingly evaluated to identify and correct any weakness and to ensure that the front line pilots can fly the best possible equipment. The TES currently has four Typhoons on strength all of which represent the latest standard of the aircraft to enter service, although this number has varied over the recent years.

The Swedish test unit is based at Linköping in southern Sweden. The detachment commander, Major Mikael Olsson, callsign “Spotter”, explained that his unit conducts operational test flying in concert with the FMV which is the development test partner at the same base in Sweden. Sharing six airframes, some are permanently assigned to the unit but others are drawn from the squadrons. As well as evaluating the latest modifications to the Gripen they devise tactics and distribute tactics manuals and tactical advice to the squadrons, similar to their UK counterparts. He explained that his pilots are experienced aviators drawn mostly from the combat wings. After attending the National Test Pilots Course in the USA for a short introduction to test flying, they return to Sweden to take up their new role. He had six of his own pilots deployed to Coningsby and they are supplemented by two former evaluators, now back on the front line, and supported by 35 military personnel.

Their British partners for this exchange fly the Eurofighter Typhoon of course, which is a single seat multi-role fighter which can conduct air-to-air or air-to-ground missions, although its design was driven by the air-to-air requirement. Carrying AMRAAM and ASRAAM air to air missiles it is also (notionally) fitted with a single Mauser BK-27 27mm cannon. The two seat trainer variant is fully combat-capable, albeit at the loss of some fuel capacity due to the additional cockpit. No 41 Sqn operates both versions. In an example of true interoperability, the 41 Squadron representative for my visit was Major Travis Winslow, callsign “Snakeyes”, who is the US exchange officer on 41 Sqn at RAF Coningsby. Having flown the F-16 operationally he moved to the UK a year ago from Aviano, Italy, to become an operational evaluator.

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Someone enjoyed that trip! – Dave Gledhill ©

Similar in many ways to the Typhoon, the Gripen is a single seat “swingrole” fighter which can conduct fighter, ground attack or reconnaissance roles within the same mission. The weapon system can be reconfigured when needed from within the cockpit. The core of the system is an Ericsson-designed air-to-air radar based on the GEC Marconi Blue Vixen design from the Sea Harrier. The track-while-scan radar can support multiple beyond visual range missiles fired simultaneously and, as with Typhoon, Gripen has a complex defensive aid suite and data link systems to support “sensor fusing”. It, reportedly, adopts a “best sensor dominates” concept which means that, whilst it may be possible to employ countermeasures against individual elements of the weapons system, it is more difficult to employ effective countermeasures against the integrated system. In other words, a radar jammer may jam the radar but other sensors may still be able to track the target and support a missile launch.

The airframes deployed to Coningsby were the latest versions of the Gripen C and D models with both the latest hardware, some of which is under evaluation, and the MS19 Block 3 software standard which is in operational service. Two seat variants were deployed to Coningsby alongside the single-seaters.

A pilot’s aim in air combat is to place the aircraft in the best position to fire a weapon and, preferably, to arrive at that point undetected. To do so, various systems on Typhoon such as the radar (the Captor), MIDS (the data link), DASS (defensive aids sub-system) and IRSTS (infra-red search and track) assist the process. The input from each of these systems is fused to provide “situational awareness” to the pilot, ideally seamlessly. Once at the launch point, the higher and faster a weapon is launched, the further it will travel, giving tactical advantage. The key is to launch a weapon outside the opponent’s missile engagement zone and to disengage before the shot is returned. During this exchange / trial this was a fine balance as both Typhoon and Gripen are equipped with capable air-to-air missiles; in the case of Typhoon AMRAAM and ASRAAM and for the Gripen, AMRAAM and IRIS-T, although other weapons are cleared for use. With similar capability it often comes down to the skill and expertise of the pilot and the ability to employ effective operational tactics. This conundrum was the genesis for the trials.

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IRIS-T on a Gripen – Dave Gledhill ©

The exchange had been many months in the planning and was conceived to allow the two operational evaluation units to share experience in tactics, techniques and procedures. The evaluation pitted the Typhoon against the Gripen in simulated air combat but also provided an opportunity to work together. It follows on from similar testing of the Typhoon against the F-15 and F-16 at the US Air Force Warfare Center at Nellis AFB and the F-18 at the Naval Air Warfare Center at China Lake.

The aim of the trial was not only share experience but to develop air-to-air procedures focussing on interoperability in the event that the RAF and Swedish Air Force should need to operate together. In parallel, the visitors evaluated the latest MS20 standard mission software which supports the introduction of the Meteor missile. The Swedish Air Force will be the launch customer for this advanced long range air-to-air weapon which will be deployed operationally in the second quarter of 2015. At the same time, the helmet mounted display system (HMD) will be introduced which will allow more effective designation and control of all the weapons but, particularly, the IRIS-T infra-red missile used predominantly in the close combat arena. This new version of software is significant in that, not only does it introduce Meteor and HMD, it also adds the small diameter bomb to the air-to-ground inventory and adds improved night capability from the reconnaissance pod. With further improvements to the Link 16 capability it will be a significant step forward for the Gripen. The IRSTS, however, will not be introduced until the E model of the Gripen enters service.

Another major area of interest was interoperability between the two types, particularly electronic exchange of information. A good deal of emphasis had been placed on passing information across the Link 16 data link and this had shown promising results. Although the Typhoon capability is mature and has been proven across NATO links, the Gripen pilots have experienced some integration issues although this is typical of early testing programmes. The pilots had, however, successfully exchanged tactical data between the two aircraft types during the tests and been able to target opponents efficiently using the distributed air picture. With both aircraft scheduled to receive the Meteor beyond visual range air to air missile (BVRAAM), its impact on the tactical air picture had been closely assessed on both sides.

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A successful exchange – Dave Gledhill ©

After the arrival of the Gripens, the flying began with simple one versus one offensive and defensive air combat engagements. During this early work the emphasis was placed on exploring missile envelopes and identifying the best manoeuvre options in both offensive and defensive engagements. As the trial continued the scenarios progressed to one versus two and two versus one tactical engagements allowing each side full tactical freedom to employ their weapons system to best advantage. Occasionally, the Typhoons and Gripens acted as a mixed fighter force with two Typhoons and two Gripens acting as the defensive counter air forces against a mixed formation of Typhoons and Gripens. The evaluation concluded on 11 June with four Typhoons pitted against six Gripens acting as “Red Air” in the presence of hostile electronic jamming transmitted from a DA20 Falcon.

When asked how the Gripen compared to Typhoon, “Spotter” was typically pragmatic. Whilst he stressed it was not a major test point, he was happy that the Gripen, with its small visual signature, was a formidable opponent and hard to see in air combat. He acknowledged that with less thrust than the Typhoon, energy management was a challenge in combat situations but that, if forced into a slow speed fight, the Gripen could hold its own. With similar turn performance often it would be the skill of the pilot which determined the outcome.

From the 41 Squadron perspective, until the arrival of the Swedish detachment, recent trials had been relatively mundane and with the emphasis in the coming months on developing a multi-role capability, the squadron was looking forward to continuing with more tactically focussed trials. Effort was underway to clear the Paveway 4 laser guided bomb for operational use. With another deployment to the United States planned for next year, the pilots would be attending the Air Warfare Centre Combined Qualified Weapons Instructor Course to develop tactics. This would allow tactical advice to be offered to the UK based squadrons before they attend Exercise Red Flag at Nellis Air Force Base in 2015 in a dual role capacity.

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Typhoon taxies back in from a sortie with the Gripens – Dave Gledhill ©

In summing up the exchange, both pilots were extremely positive and underlined the invaluable experience which both units had gained. They both hoped that this is the first of many such exchanges and already the planners are looking to see if the RAF can visit Sweden in the future. If plans mature this looks set to be the first of many fruitful detachments.

Global Aviation Resource would like to thank 41(R) Squadron, personnel from the Swedish Air Force and Jim Robinson at RAF Coningsby

Dave Gledhill is an aviation author who flew the Phantom and Tornado F3 during his flying career. His first book was the critically acclaimed “The Phantom in Focus: A Navigator’s Eye on Britain’s Cold War Warrior.” His 2nd book “Fighters Over The Falklands – Defending the Islanders’ Way of Life” was also published by Fonthill Media. His third book “Tornado F3 in Focus – A Navigator’s Eye on Britain’s Last Interceptor” will be released later this year. His first novel “Defector” is available as an E book on Amazon Kindle.