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 November 2005
 

AUSTRIA RETIRES ITS SAAB 35OE DRAKENS

By Gerald A. Simperl

Austria always finds the procurement of new fighter aircraft difficult. So the discussions and delays that have occurred over the last few years in connection with the purchase of the Eurofighter were nothing new – the Draken saga simply dragged on a little longer than usual. It was back in 1966 that the Austrian Federal Army first started thinking about procuring the Saab J-35, which at that time was state-of-the-art, as a successor to the Saab J-29F Tunnan. As well as the J-35D, the Austrians also tested the Dassault Mirage III, the Douglas A-4F Skyhawk and the Northrop F-5A in 1966/67. The outcome of the evaluation was a victory for the French Mirage, but this aircraft was more sophisticated and more expensive than the Draken, which in turn was more powerful than the F-5.

Saab Draken in Austria

The military plans published in July 1967 therefore provided for the procurement of two squadrons (24 aircraft) to be equipped with the Saab J-35 and one training squadron (12 aircraft) equipped with the Saab 105. However, for political reasons 40 Saab 105Ö's were eventually purchased. These aircraft have been in service since 1970 and have also been used for air surveillance. But in actual fact the Saab 105Ö was never more than an armed trainer.

For the Social Democratic Party of Austria (SPÖ), which formed a government in 1970, the procurement of interceptors was completely out of the question. In the Federal Army, however, hopes of acquiring an interceptor lived on, and in 1974 a requirements specification was drawn up. The aircraft considered for this role from 1975/76 included representatives of the second generation, such as the F-5E Tiger, the Mirage 50, the Mirage F.1C and the Israeli Kfir C2 as well as some third generation aircraft, such as the Saab 37 Viggen and the F-16A. In 1981 the favoured option was to purchase 24 Mirage 50's, but, ostensibly due to lack of funds, this idea was laid to rest. In actual fact there was a lack of political will to procure such a system, which was supposed to serve as an active component supplementing the now enhanced and technically advanced “Goldhaube” (Gold Bonnet) radar surveillance system.

In 1982 the political decision was made to aim for a second-hand solution for the “air surveillance aircraft”. Already in 1984 the military were therefore emphasising the fact that this temporary solution of second generation fighter aircraft must be linked to the procurement of a successor type of the fourth generation in the 1990s.

The search for a suitable model got under way after a coalition government was formed in 1983 between the SPÖ and the Liberal Party of Austria (FPÖ). This time the shortlist comprised the Mirage III/50 and the F-5E as well as the Draken. To everyone's surprise, the English BAC Lightning was another contender and, due to its better performance, it even emerged from the military tender evaluation as the winner. But the higher operating costs of the twin-engined Lightning jet and the “Swedish solution” preferred by the government finally tipped the balance in favour of the Draken, and a resolution to purchase this aircraft was passed on 2 April 1985. The contract, worth 2.43 billion schillings (176.6 million Euro) was signed on 21 May. Training of the Austrian pilots commenced before the end of the same year, starting with Air Wing F16 in Uppsala and then continuing with Air Wing F10 in Ängelholm.

As well as offsets to the tune of at least 130 percent of the contract value (which the Swedes more than delivered, giving offsets to the value of 180 percent between then and 1993), the contract also provided for the complete overhaul of the 24 type J-35D's which had been produced between 1963 and 1965. The modifications entailed replacing the entire navigation equipment and the transponders plus a large proportion of the instrumentation. The Saab 35OE's were also fitted with the canopies of the J-35F/J series, which offered much better visibility.

Only a short time after the type decision, the Governor of the Province of Styria, Josef Krainer, suddenly came out with the passionate statement that his province was being forced to bear the “entire burden” caused by the stationing of the Drakens. Under directions from the Defence Minister, Helmut Krünes (FPÖ), a compromise solution had to be worked out. This entailed deploying the Drakens on a rotating basis, spread over the seven large airfields of Graz, Innsbruck, Klagenfurt, Linz, Salzburg, Vienna and Zeltweg. This meant that the 24 Draken, divided into two squadrons each comprising 12 aircraft, could finally be stationed in Graz and Zeltweg. The planned rotating solution was never implemented.

However, the entry into service of the Draken in Austria was greeted by a number of further counteractions. The political interests of individual groups, some of them very small, and an unbelievably mindless media campaign culminated in two petitions for a referendum. Both were declined in Parliament in July 1986.

On 25 June 1987, the first “Austrianised” Draken (aircraft number 14) was officially handed over to the Austrian Air Force in Linköping and transferred to Ängelholm, where, together with the Saab 35OE's which followed, it was used for pilot training. Training of the technicians took place in Sweden as planned, commencing in the spring of 1987. On 6 June 1988 the first six Drakens arrived at Graz-Thalerhof. Flying operations began the same month with these aircraft. On 7 July 1989 the 24th and last aircraft landed in Austria.

But even before the Drakens began their regular flying operations in Austria, the next crisis was already on its way: due to an entirely unjustified media campaign denigrating the second-hand fighters as “scrap planes”, a large number of pilots left the Air Force prematurely for civil airlines. The resulting void meant that at times only nine pilots were available for the 24 Drakens. The shortfall was finally made up in the 1990s through changes in the pay scheme and a targeted advertising campaign.

Despite all these setbacks, the Drakens from time to time served as the National Quick Reaction Alert forces, starting in April 1990.

The crisis caused by the shortage of pilots had just reached its climax when in June 1991 Austria was shocked by the start of the conflict in Yugoslavia, its neighbour to the south. There were numerous airspace violations along the southern border caused by aircraft and helicopters belonging to the Yugoslavian Federal Army. The most serious incident occurred on 28 June, when a MiG-21 penetrated at low altitude as far as Graz. On the same day the Federal Army received the order to secure the Austrian-Yugoslav national border, the Drakens were put on 24-hour alert and flew highly conspicuous patrols and interception missions with live munitions from Graz-Thalerhof, while also serving as escorts for reconnaissance flights.

These missions had an unexpected side effect: the frightened Austrian population in the border region welcomed the Draken missions with jubilation, and overnight the fighters turned into an icon of the Austrian military presence.

The missions on the border had another positive effect. The Austrian Drakens had originally been armed solely with two 30mm aircraft cannons, which in an emergency might of course have proved totally inadequate. The reason for this was the “missile ban” which stemmed from the Austrian State Treaty of 1955. After the fall of the Iron Curtain, Austria declared the relevant article obsolete. In January 1993 a contract for the purchase of AIM-9P3 Sidewinders was signed with the Flygvapnet (the Swedish Air Force), and the first deliveries arrived at the beginning of 1994. These were followed from 1998 by a number of improved AIM-9P5's from US manufacturer Loral.

Another modification that the 24 Austrian Drakens underwent was the installation of radar warning receivers and of chaff and flare dispensers supplied by the Finnish company Valmet. The work began in 1994 and was finished three years later. From that time on, the Drakens were designated the Saab 35OE Mk II.

Thanks to the rise in pilot numbers and growing technical experience, routine peacetime operations settled down in the course of the 1990s. Among the pilots and technicians the Draken has continued to be highly regarded to this day. Wing Commander Doro Kowatsch, the former commander of the air surveillance wing, is today the commander of Flight Regiment 2. He still has a soft spot for the Draken. “That aircraft cut through the air like a hot knife through soft butter,” is how the former Draken display pilot describes the aerodynamic properties of the double-delta wing fighter. “The Draken is very responsive to all control inputs and its narrow tolerances allow little leeway, which means that pilots end up being very disciplined in the way that they fly. The low-speed characteristics take some getting used to, especially in a delta-wing aircraft, as does the high angle of attack on landing. On the other hand the Draken withstands turbulence very well. But a stall warning has to be taken extremely seriously, as the aircraft becomes aerodynamically unstable even before the stall – you have to stick to the ground rules precisely.”

For its time, the Draken's design was ground-breaking and its double-delta configuration made it similar to fly to the French Mirage III. “It is built for high speeds, it has a very good climb performance and is altogether more powerful than the F-5, which on the other hand is simpler and more good-natured to fly at lower speeds and is also more agile. Especially on relatively tight turns in air combat, the restricted power reserves of the RM-6C engine impose limits on the pilot's options.” Such is the assessment of this Draken pilot of many years' standing, who knows the drawbacks of his aircraft only too well.

The accident statistics bear witness to the Austrians' mastery over the Draken. In all the 17 years, as it soon will be, in which the Draken has been in service in Austria there has not been a single crash. When one considers that the aircraft are now 40 years old, the fact that they have been operated safely for such a long time in Austria is largely due to the outstanding maintenance they have received at the hands of the Federal Army technicians. On top of this, the long tradition of excellent relations with Sweden has meant that any problems that have occurred could always be quickly resolved. These good relations extended beyond the Saab company. Especially with the Flygvapnet, there have been close and regular contacts, culminating in the participation of the Austrians in air-to-air practice firing exercises in Vidsel in northern Sweden in 1990/91, 1993, 1995 and 1997.

As the routine changed, the number of exercises in which the Austrian Drakens took part increased both at home and abroad. These included air combat training over the North Sea in the Air Combat Manoeuvring Instrumentation (ACMI) range in 1995, 1997 and 2002 from Waddington in the UK, and three Amadeus exercises that took place in 1997, 2000 and 2002 with the participation of France, Italy and Switzerland.

Even as the Draken was first entering service, it was feared in the Federal Army that there would be a gap in the Austrian air surveillance capability after what was supposed to be a temporary solution for perhaps ten years came to an end. The SPÖ-ÖVP (Austrian People's Party) coalition which was in power up to 1999 could not make up its mind finally to go ahead with procurement of a successor. As a result, between 1999 and 2001 fifteen Austrian pilots had to make up their flying hours in Sweden on the Jaktviggen. It was not until an FPÖ-ÖVP coalition came to power that the decision to procure a successor was finally made in 2002: 18 Eurofighter Typhoons were to protect the Austrian skies from 2007.

Due to their advanced age, it is becoming increasingly difficult to operate with the nine airworthy Drakens remaining. Following expiry of the maintenance contract with the Logistics Support unit of the Swedish Air Force (FMV), support by the Swedish Air Force finally ended on 31 December 2003. Proposals from Swedish industry to extend Draken flying operations to 2008 were not pursued for cost reasons. An offer to lease six to eight Gripens was also declined. Finally a leasing agreement was signed with Switzerland last year under which twelve F-5E Tigers would be operated to 2008 (with an option to extend this by a further year). Since June of this year the Tigers have performed the role of National Quick Reaction Alert forces, and by December this year at the latest flying operations with the Saab 35OE Draken will finally come to an end.

From page 40 of FLUG REVUE 11/2005
 


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