Nearly five years after signing the purchase contract for the next-generation Gripen Swedish fighters that will soon be joining the Brazilian Air Force (FAB) fleet, the first jet is ready to fly. It’s due to take off in August from the Saab AB runway in Linköping, Sweden, a city of 150,000 located 220 kilometers from the country’s capital, Stockholm, and begin its flight test campaign. This is the final stage before the planes are delivered, which is slated to begin in 2021. Until then, the fighter jets will be subjected to an exhaustive battery of trials, where all their systems and components will be put to the test.
The purchase of the military jets, named the Gripen E (single-seat model) and F (dual-seat model), was made official on October 24, 2014, after a process that began more than a decade earlier. The aircraft won the FX-2 Program competition, aimed at modernizing Brazilian fighter aviation, surpassing the Boeing F/A-18 E/F Super Hornet from the United States, and the French Dassault Rafale F3. The Swedish supersonic aircraft will immediately replace the Air Force’s outdated Mirage F-2000, which has already been deactivated, and in the medium to long term, will also replace its F-5M and A-1M fighter jets. The package of 36 (28 single-seat and 8 dual-seat) jets cost 39.3 billion Swedish kronor, currently equivalent to US$4.1 billion, or R$15.5 billion. The last of the jets are to be delivered to the FAB in 2024.
“The Gripen E/F is an excellent fourth generation fighter, has great performance, and is designed to be relatively inexpensive, easy to maintain, and responsive enough to combat any attacker,” says engineer Álvaro Martins Abdalla, a specialist in aircraft design at the University of São Paulo’s São Carlos School of Engineering (EESC-USP). The Saab jet, which was similar in performance to its competition, won out for two main reasons. The first was the value of the deal.
“In terms of operating cost and overall transaction value, the Gripen E/F was a wise choice. It’s one of the cheapest fighters on the market, with good radar and supersonic speed,” emphasizes Richard Aboulafia, an aviation industry analyst and vice president at Teal Group, a US consulting firm specializing in aerospace and defense. “However, I believe it would have made more sense to choose the F/A-18E/F if Brazil were looking for jets that also operated from Navy aircraft carriers, and not just to work for the Air Force.”
The second aspect of the deal that tipped the balance to the Swedish company was the US$9 billion trade compensation agreement Saab offered, a figure that includes the company investing in manufacturing facilities in Brazil and training Brazilian engineers and pilots in Sweden. Also known as an offset, this type of agreement is a legal requirement when Brazilian military purchases exceed US$5 million. The Saab offset also established a technology transfer program (ToT) directed towards the FAB and specific Brazilian companies, and that the nation’s industry, led by Embraer, be involved in developing the aircraft. Unlike the other finalists, the Super Hornet and Rafale, the new generation of Swedish fighter—which was first launched in the 1980s—wasn’t a completed design, but an ongoing project.
“The key point for choosing the Gripen was that it was still under development. This meant that engineers from the FAB and Brazilian companies would be able to participate in the aircraft’s design and construction with the Swedes, making the technology transfer more effective,” says economist Marcos José Barbieri Ferreira, coordinator of the Aerospace and Defense Industries Study Lab at the University of Campinas (UNICAMP). “Brazil wouldn’t merely be absorbing already consolidated technology—such as that offered by Boeing and Dassault—but would be participating in building this new knowledge base.”
Air Force Colonel Fernando Abrahão, the first manager of the FX-2 Program in 2008 and a professor at the Aeronautical Technology Institute (ITA), agrees with Barbieri, although he points out that Brazil’s delay in signing the contract with Saab has limited industry participation in part of the Gripen’s development. By 2010, the FAB’s final evaluation report had already placed the Swedish fighter ahead of the other two candidates. The decision, however, was only announced in December of 2013. It took another ten months to settle details and sign the contract.
“Harnessing the Gripen’s strengths—i.e., the ability to jointly develop, and then build on its capabilities—would have had more potential for success if the acquisition contract had been signed in 2010, not in 2014. In four years, a lot of the technology can change,” notes Abrahão. He also disagrees with the obligatory nature of the offset programs. “Depending on who the provider is, you may have good or bad compensation projects. There isn’t always a technology transfer at a level that’s in the country’s interests. Some projects may be insignificant, and don’t meet the desired objectives. Not to mention that the price with an offset is one thing, and without it it’s another. That has to be taken into consideration as well.”
The offset program linked to the Gripen purchase established the transfer of technologies in areas identified by the Air Force Command and indicated by the nation’s industry, especially in the aerospace sector. “This is the largest trade compensation agreement ever linked to an FAB defense product procurement agreement,” says Air Force Colonel Paulo Roberto de Carvalho Júnior, the current FX-2 Program manager and a member of the Coordinating Committee for the Combat Aircraft Program (COPAC), the FAB agency responsible for the deal.
The FAB official explains that Saab owns the Gripen project, but by partnering in the program to develop the jet, Brazil will benefit its industry. “Many requirements of the new Gripen will be exclusive Brazilian intellectual property, as they are particular concepts that came solely from the project conceived here,” says Carvalho.
One criticism of the Gripen’s ToT program is that more than half of the jet’s components are manufactured in other countries, most notably the United States. This factor could constitute an impediment to a more effective technology transfer, since such items would have license or patent restrictions. The Brazilian Air Force and Saab, however, deny that this will be the case.
Fifteen aircraft will be produced in the state of São Paulo in a project led by Embraer
According to the Swedish company, designing a fighter such as the Gripen involves a set of critical and sensitive technologies that are specific to the aircraft manufacturer, such as cell design (the aircraft’s structure), and aeronautical and systems integration (avionics, radar, and armaments). “All of them are within the scope of the technology transfer to Brazil. These are the capabilities that, once transferred, will allow Brazilian industries to maintain and upgrade the fighters, as well as design next-generation aircraft,” explains Mikael Franzén, head of the Gripen Brazil Business Unit and vice president of business at Saab Aeronautics.
Industry analyst Richard Aboulafia believes that restrictions on technology transfer occur in any aerospace program. “The really valuable technology stays with the manufacturer. And even if it were passed on, what difference would it make? General Electric could give Brazil a lot of information about the F414 engine that powers the Gripen, but what would the country do with it? On the other hand, the technology transfer program may include knowledge associated with the manufacturing processes, and this could be extremely useful,” the expert observes.
Per Kustvik / SAAB
Saab employees assemble the first jet intended for the Brazilian Air ForcePer Kustvik / SAAB
In addition to Embraer and the Air Force Department of Aerospace Science and Technology (DCTA), five companies are beneficiaries of the technology transfer program, four in the state of São Paulo: Akaer, in São José dos Campos, Saab Aeronautica Montagens (SAM), in São Bernardo do Campo, and Atech Sistemas and Atmos Sistemas, both headquartered in the state capital of São Paulo. The fifth is AEL Sistemas, in Porto Alegre, Rio Grande do Sul. “Saab selected the companies that would receive the proposed technologies. Each company participates in the compensation agreement on projects that enable them to contribute to the construction of a state-of-the-art fighter jet,” says FAB’s Carvalho.
The Gripen Program’s ToT process comprises 62 projects divided into four broad areas: theoretical training of the Brazilian teams involved, research and technology programs, on-the-job training of Brazilian professionals at the Saab plant in Sweden, and development and production of the systems and aircraft. More than 350 personnel from national companies and the FAB, including engineers, operators, technicians, and pilots, will attend courses and special training in Sweden. As of August of this year 170 engineers had already been trained at Linköping. Most of these work at the Gripen Design and Development Center (GDDN), located at an Embraer plant in Gavião Peixoto, São Paulo.
Inaugurated in 2016, the GDDN is the jet’s technological development hub in Brazil. Its installation was stipulated in the offset agreement, as one of the compensations in the industrial sector. “The GDDN houses all the engineering tools and data, with the appropriate levels of cyber security and communications, and is integrated with the Gripen development environment in Linköping. Today, 123 engineers—105 Brazilians and 18 Swedes—work at the site, which has simulators and everything else necessary to develop the jets,” Embraer said through its press office. The Gripen Testing Center and the facilities for assembling most of the fighters will be built in Gavião Peixoto.
Of the 36 fighters, 23 will be assembled partially or totally in the state of São Paulo, in a project led by Embraer. “Saab is responsible for assembling 13 Gripen units entirely in Sweden. Eight other aircraft will be partially manufactured in Linköping and then completed in Brazil, with the participation of Brazilian technicians and engineers,” says Mikael Franzén. Beginning in 2021, 15 aircraft will be produced entirely at the Embraer facility in Gavião Peixoto, the first of which is to be delivered to the Air Force three years later.
“This integration is part of the technology transfer stipulated in the contract and aims to provide the practical knowledge necessary to carry out these same activities in Brazil,” explains Franzén. The final aircraft to be constructed will be the dual-seat models, a project seeing extensive participation from the Brazilian manufacturer. The cooperation agreement between Embraer and Saab also includes 900 test flights in Brazil.
One of the main Brazilian contributions to the new Gripen are the state-of-the-art displays that will equip the jet cabin. Developed and produced by AEL Sistemas, a subsidiary of Israeli firm Elbit Systems, these cockpit displays will allow pilots to access all the relevant flight information. Initially, the idea was for them to be incorporated into FAB aircraft only, but Saab confirmed last year that they will also be integrated with the 60 Gripen E/F jets ordered by the Swedish Air Force, whose first unit will be delivered next year.
“With the harmonization of the Brazilian and Swedish programs, AEL has become part of the Gripen’s global production chain. All future orders for the plane will have the WAD, HUD, and HMD displays, developed by us, and which incorporate Brazilian, Israeli, and Swedish technologies,” says Air Force Reserve Colonel João Alexandro Braga Maciel Vilela, AEL’s business development manager.
The Wide Area Display (WAD) is a high definition panoramic touchscreen that shows key flight data. It will replace a set of smaller screens initially designed for the aircraft, while the Head-Up Display (HUD) will present mission-critical data directly in the front of the cockpit, in the pilot’s line of sight. The Helmet Mounted Display (HMD), in turn, is a helmet-integrated display that allows pilots to view data and images regarding their target, enhancing decision-making capacity. Providing these technologies to Saab fosters a reverse technology transfer and is an example of how the industrial partnership between the Swedish company and its Brazilian partners has gone beyond the initial agreement.
Gripen E cockpit showing WAD (yellow cockpit screen
) and HUD displays (projections in green on forward display
A meaningful cooperation arrangement has also been established with Akaer through the Gripen Program. In 2009, even before the Gripen purchase was finalized, Saab chose the São José dos Campos firm to be one of its international partners in the Gripen development program. “In the preliminary study phase we worked on the center and rear fuselage, the wings, engine bay door, and main landing gear. Since 2011, we have been responsible for the entire configuration of the rear fuselage, as well as for the details and documentation for engineering the central fuselage and the section known as the gun unit, where the fighter cannon is located,” says materials engineer Fernando Coelho Ferraz, Akaer’s vice president of operations.
“The development of a fighter aircraft is a unique opportunity not only for the professionals involved, but also for the Akaer company and Brazil. This aircraft’s technologies don’t exist in the country today, which makes the transfer program very important,” states Ferraz. The success of the partnership led Saab to acquire 15% of Akaer’s shares in 2012, and later raise its stake in the company to 25%. Last year it made a further increase to 28% in a stock swap deal where Akaer took on 10% ownership in Saab Aeronautica Montagens (SAM).
The implementation of an aircraft factory such as SAM, in Brazil, was also one of the offset compensations under the FX-2 Program. According to Saab, a majority partner in SAM, six sections will be produced in São Bernardo for the Brazilian Gripen: the rear fuselage, tail cone, wingbox, aerodynamic brakes, and the front fuselage for both single- and dual-seat versions. The project design for the São Bernardo unit, which is expected to start operating by 2020, was presented in May last year. The factory is directed by Brazilian engineer Marcelo Lima, who comes from the automotive sector, and will initially employ 55 professionals. The first engineers hired received training in Sweden this year. Saab expects the unit to become a global supplier of Gripen aerostructures.
Pilot wears helmet that will feature HMD avionicsRenata Morales
Specializing in air traffic control solutions, Atech is absorbing Saab technologies in areas related to simulators and ground support systems. “We are working on a simulator that validates the new features incorporated into the Brazilian fighter, such as avionics, armaments and the second seat for the dual-seat models. Before it can be integrated into the airplane, it must all be evaluated and validated in a virtual environment,” says engineer Giacomo Staniscia, the director of Atech’s defense department, which is part of the Embraer Group.
The company is also working on a pilot training simulator that’s more complex and has more features than those used to train civilian pilots, and a mission support system. “Before a military jet flies, its mission needs to be programmed, which includes defining the takeoff location, establishing the reconnaissance flight parameters, and determining which radar and weaponry it will employ. This is planned beforehand, on land, in the system we’re creating with the Swedes,” says Staniscia.
“The knowledge absorbed through this project is important because it enables us to maintain and evolve systems for a state-of-the-art fighter jet,” adds Atech’s defense department manager, electronics engineer André Di Luca Júnior. “At the same time, it opens opportunities for us to improve our products and offer cutting-edge solutions to the world market.”
Di Luca reports that the first phase of the ToT in Sweden involving Atech employees began in May 2016, when 13 of its professionals went to an immersion program at Saab headquarters for in-depth technological training. In the following phase, scheduled for next year, four other participants will be sent to Linköping. The 17 professionals participating in the project are engineers, half of whom hold master’s degrees or PhDs.
Linus Svensson / SAAB
Aircraft purchased by the Swedish government during certification campaignLinus Svensson / SAAB
A highly qualified technical team also participates in the Gripen Program at Atmos Systems. Focused on the development of electronic solutions such as radar, avionics, and antennas, the company will maintain components of the aircraft’s sensor system, such as radar and defense equipment. “Maintaining aircraft electronics is a highly specialized service that demands high-quality standards,” says engineer Fabio Fukuda, director of Atmos. “By understanding Saab’s technology, we will be on the Air Force’s list of companies capable of providing support service.”
The company will receive and be trained to operate an automated test bench, which will enable them to perform long, complex tests on avionics, radar, and defense devices automatically, and repetitively, with little operator intervention. “Our prior knowledge of radar and microwave systems, as well as that gained from the Sirius synchrotron light ring project, carried out with FAPESP support, was critical to our developing the test bench and being selected by Saab,” adds Fukuda.
Another project indirectly benefited by the Gripen purchase is being coordinated by Air Force colonel Fernando Abrahão of the Technological Institute of Aeronautics (ITA) in São José dos Campos. He leads the institution’s Logistics Engineering Laboratory (AeroLog-Lab-ITA), which is being trained to provide logistical support for the Swedish jets. “Logistic support is everything that needs to be done on an aircraft so that it can continue to operate safely after a certain time period,” explains Abrahão. “And Gripen’s logistic support is highly innovative.”
The ITA professor explains that when the Gripen E/F is integrated into the FAB fleet, it will not be possible to manage them the same way the current F-5 fighters are handled. “The Gripen demands different technologies and expertise than what’s needed for the F-5. Our lab has been training in this area,” he says. The AeroLogLab has three students pursuing a master’s degree focused on the Gripen’s logistics technologies. They are being jointly supervised by Abrahão, Guilherme Rocha, and Henrique Martins, all ITA teachers, and by Saab. They spent 60 days in Sweden and will spend two years working on logistics development at the AeroLogLab-ITA.
Final development of electronic device for measuring electron beam position (ebpm) for the synchrotron light source of the Sirius Project (Sirius) (nº 14/50782-8) Grant Mechanism FAPESP Technological Innovation in Small Businesses Program (PIPE); Principal Investigator Fábio Haruo Fukuda (Atmos); Investment R$953,724.38.