The South African Air Force recently signed a steady state support contract for Saab Grintek Defence to maintain its 26 Gripen aircraft, a move that has effectively saved half of the fleet from being mothballed, and keeping them all in a state of operational readiness.

However, the benefits of the contract have a wider reach, says Saab Grintek Defence’s South African country manager Magnus Lewis-Olsson.

Since the SAAF took delivery of the Gripen fighters, it has operated them under a series of interim contracts, which means that Saab hasn’t been able to dedicate resources to the South African fleet.

“Now that we have a long-term contract, we are able to set up systems that ensure 24/7 support and share technical publications as they become available,” Magnus Olsson says.

He points out that a fighter jet has a lifespan of about 30 to 40 years and, during this time, upgrades need to be made and information shared.

The South African Gripens are slightly different to the others shipped in the rest of the world, most notably because they include the locally-developed HMI system.

“In fact, when they were delivered, the South African Gripens were the most modern in the world,” Magnus Olsson says.

The SAAF has bought 26 Gripens – 17 single-seater Gripen Cs and nine double-seater Gripen Ds – which are operated by 2 Squadron at the Makhado Air Force base.

Having a steady state support contract is good way to ensure the aircraft remain up to date, Magnus Olsson says. “Traditionally, high-tech aircraft like the Gripen would receive a mid-life update to help them to stay current and relevant in a changing market,” he explains.

“Saab, however, employs what it calls spiral development that updates the craft in smaller increments every couple of years. This means they are always as up to date as possible and avoids periods when technology may not be current.”

Because they haven’t been covered by a long-term contract until recently, the SAAF’s Gripens have already missed out on one upgrade edition – a situation that can now be rectified.

“With the South African contract signed, Saab can now dedicate resources to the fleet and get it on to the upgrade path,” says Magnus Olsson. “This includes updating the operating software and hardware, which is released every two years or so.”

The contract has also saved almost half of the fleet from being permanently grounded. In 2013, the SAAF investigated the possibility of mothballing 12 Gripen aircraft due to the low number of flying hours allocated for the next year.

The new contract allows for a less costly maintenance process that allows the aircraft to be more readily available for flying; now every Gripen is flown at least every 60 days and will be available for active duty within two days.

Nicknamed the “Flying Cheetahs”, the SAAF’s Gripens have seen a number of active assignments although a number of them have experienced woefully few flying hours.

When mothballing part of the Gripen fleet was mooted, part of the problem was that the aircraft weren’t getting enough flying hours.

The issue of aircraft hours and pilot skills are interlinked and Lewis-Olsson explains that budgets have kept the Gripens from flying, and this has also restricted the ability of pilots to become skilled Gripen fliers.

“Now that the full fleet will be in the air, it should be possible to get more pilots trained up, with flying hours under their belts,” he explains. “There is currently a push to get more fighter pilots for the Gripens.”

The bottom line, according to Lewis Olsson, is that the long-term contract means the Gripens will be more cost-effective to fly; they will be more available; and they will be constantly updated to remain modern and relevant for their full 30 to 40 year lifespan.

In addition, Saab will be able to dedicate full-time resources to the SAAF fleet, while holding spares locally. As a added bonus, South African fighter pilots will be able to keep flying, and bring on new pilots as well.

Questions have been raised in some circles about whether South Africa needs a fleet of modern fighter planes. Lewis-Olsson explains that the Gripens have seen action supporting South African troops in central Africa, and have also been deployed for local events like the Soccer World Cup

During the World Cup, he says, the Gripens were in the air about 50 times – in fat, at every match there was a fighter plane overhead, in constant communication with the control centre and other aircraft types in operation.