SAAF Gripens taking part in Exercise Lion Effort


The South African Air Force (SAAF) is for the first time taking part in Exercise Lion Effort in Sweden, a tactical exercise intended to enhance interoperability between Gripen user countries. Four SAAF Gripens are among 30 of the fighters from Sweden, Hungary and the Czech Republic.

Lion Effort kicked off on Tuesday and is scheduled to run to April 5. The initial phase of the exercise consists of familiarisation flights, with the main exercise elements taking place between April 1 and 4. Familiarisation flights include visual identification (VID) exercises, 1 vs 1 and 2 vs 2 air-to-air engagements, and close air support (CAS) missions. During the familiarisation phase the participants are flying in three waves per day.

The exercise is being held in an operational area 70 by 200 nautical miles in size and involves around 300 people. Missions will be flown both by single-nation formations and in composite air operations, in which pilots from the different Gripen squadrons co-operate together. Various ground and seaborne assets will also participate in the exercise over the Baltic Sea. Aircraft began assembling at Ronneby, Sweden, for the exercise earlier this week, and began familiarisation flights yesterday.

The four SAAF Gripens taking part in Lion Effort are the last four to be handed over to the air force, and they have been held back in Sweden so that the SAAF can participate in the exercise with its own machines. On October 8 last year South Africa received its penultimate Gripen shipment when four C models arrived in Cape Town harbour. South Africa has nine two-seat (D model) and 17 single-seat (C model) Gripens on order.
“It’s a magnificent training opportunity for us,” said Colonel Pierre Venter, SAAF contingent commander, “and it is unique in the sense of its format and our ability to be here.” Although the aircraft were already in Sweden, the SAAF contingent arrived at the start of the week and has established itself quickly, Saab reports.
“After our third day in the field here, I’m very happy to send communications back home that we’re ready for the first flying,” said Venter. “Many of our contingent have not travelled abroad before. Coming here has been all just positive. It’s brought out a lot of good character.”

Venter said the SAAF was in the early stages of building up a Gripen capability and would benefit from operating alongside more experienced users. “Through the exercise we can benchmark, learn, share, and get exposure for handling the platform, and how we approach deployments.”

The South African contingent has 40 members (including fighter pilots from 2 Squadron), plus three technical representatives and a test pilot from Saab, who are in Sweden as part of the ongoing Gripen technical support package. “We have set up a deployment capability,” said Venter, “and the Saab element here is the interface for problem solving, spares and technical solutions.”

As well as flight and maintenance personnel, the contingent includes other branches of the SAAF, such as representatives from the communications, flight safety, finance and legal sectors.

For Venter, now commander of the Air Force Command and Control School, the exercise provides an opportunity to come back to the country where he was defence attaché for four years. “I was involved in some of the planning conferences for the exercise,” said Venter. “Now, stepping back into this contingent commander’s role, seeing the components in action, is magnificent.”

The South African Air Force said the exercise will provide the fighter line with much needed exposure, test the operational deployment ability of the Gripen and training of air and ground crews in multinational operations.

It added that by participating in this exercise the SAAF and South African National Defence Force will be exposed to Composite Air Operations (CAMAO) training, Large Force Employment and Offensive and Defensive Air Support. “This exposure and the knowledge gained will benefit the SAAF and the SANDF for future operations in Africa.”

For Lion Effort the Czech Republic sent three aircraft (two Cs and a D) from 211 Squadron at Cáslav’s 21st Air Base, together with three Aero L-159 light combat aircraft. Saab notes that the Czech air force passed the 10 000-hour milestone with its 14 Gripen C/Ds in September 2010, and a year later Major Otakar Prikner became the first Czech pilot to pass the 1 000-hour mark. In the lead-up to the exercise two Czech pilots qualified for in-flight refuelling. They operated from Ronneby and refuelled from the Swedish air force’s TP 84T Hercules tanker.
“It’s a perfect opportunity to co-operate within the Gripen nations,” said Czech Major Petr Michenka. “We can share experiences and co-operation across a wide scale now.”

Shortly after Lion Effort the Czech air force plans to return to Sweden with three Gripen Cs for a live-firing campaign at the Vidsel range in the north.

Hungary has sent five aircraft from the ‘Puma’ squadron of the 59th Tactical Fighter Wing at Kecskemét. The Hungarian Gripens arrived at Ronneby from Vidsel in northern Sweden, from where they conducted a firing campaign over the surrounding test range with AIM-9 Sidewinder air-to-air missiles. On January 30 Hungary announced that it would extend its leasing agreement for 12 Gripen Cs and two Gripen Ds for another 10 years from 2016.

Although Thailand is not flying aircraft in the exercise, observers are taking an active interest in the daily operations, acquiring knowledge that they can take back to the Royal Thai Air Force. Thailand acquired an initial batch of six Gripens, which was officially declared as operational in July last year. The country has ordered a second batch of six Gripens, to be delivered in 2013.

Around 15 Swedish Gripens are participating in the exercise. They come from both the home wing (F 17) at Ronneby and the Tactical and Operational Evaluation Unit (TUJAS) at Malmen. The Swedish Air Force has experience from Operation Karakal, the Swedish contribution to NATO’s Operation Unified Protector over Libya. Gripens flew air policing and reconnaissance missions during Karakal, marking the aircraft’s combat debut.

One of Sweden’s Saab 340 Erieye airborne warning and control aircraft is also scheduled to take part in the exercise.

The first Lion Effort exercise was held in 2009 in Hungary, and the next one is planned for 2015 in the Czech Republic.