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Blue Bears, WIGs and rocket fighters

As I write this on Labor Day, in the residential hinterland of the Pentagon, local citizens including, no doubt, a greater-then-average number of those responsible for planning national defense, are rolling up to shop at the neighboring Costco. We’re in luck! Look at all the parking spaces!

Costco is closed as it has been on every public holiday since time immemorial, but it seems to take the BMW SUVs and never-seen-a-sheet-of-plywood Dude Trucks about three circuits of the lot to figure this out.

We may be doomed.

Two stories of interest from last week, reported here and there “with no attempt to shovel a glimpse into the ditch of what each one means”, as the Master puts it

Saab acquired a tiny British company that sounds like a pub. Blue Bear is an unmanned air system (UAS) tech company that specializes in the control systems for drones and drone swarms, including autopilots, ground control systems, and core avionics that integrate sensors. The deal will have been in process for some time, but more recent developments in Ukraine, such as medium bombers accidentally exploding in the presence of cardboard drones, have woken some people up (not just Russian base commanders hearing detonations) to the potential of small drones.

But systems that enable small flying objects to aviate, navigate, and communicate will do the same for larger ones that have greater reach (range and speed). This is a good fit for Saab, which is strong in unmanned underwater systems, but has done relatively little in UAS.

That may change, because Saab may be in the process of becoming “Saab 3.0”. Those familiar with the company’s history (there are perhaps a dozen of us in the U.S., none of whom is orbiting the Costco lot) know that it rebuilt itself completely after the Cold War, in which the company grew up. That first version of Saab, along with the rest of Sweden’s defense industry, was government-supported and dedicated to national policy: armed not-quite neutrality, with minimal reliance on foreign suppliers or export revenue, and aligned with Swedish military doctrine. The industry was privately owned and wedded to non-government business: Saab and Volvo cars, Ericsson phones.

“Saab 2.0” was the result of drastic cutbacks after 1991. Saab was told to go out and seek its fortune in exports and partnerships, and separated from the automotive business. The same separation happened across the industry, and Saab absorbed Bofors’ missiles, Ericsson’s radars, Celsius EW, and ultimately (an entertaining story) re-acquiring Kockums’ shipbuilding from Germany’s Thyssen-Krupp.

The next stage reflects two big changes. Swedish defense spending has been on the rise in response to a more aggressive Russia, since 2014. The original plan was for existing Gripen C fighters to be modified into Gripen Es (almost but not quite the Ship of Theseus), but since 2018 the Cs are to be retained and the Es are all new. A system of systems, including UAS and an EW-carrying decoy, will surround the fighter force. All this was in the works before the other big change, NATO membership – which has now cleared the hurdles of opposition from Turkey and Hungary.

Saab now has a directive to look at a new Swedish fighter, after initial discussions with the Anglo-Italian Team Tempest founders. Going it alone might seem ambitious: but Saab can argue that, in the Gripen E, it has the core of a future combat air system, with open-architecture avionics that others are only now emulating. “Changing the dustcover” may be a flip way of talking about a new airplane – but then, look where the money is going on new programs and it is not all on engines and airframes.

As for a combat network, Sweden has forgotten more about networking fighters than most nations know. And UAS large and very small, with Blue Bear’s technology, will be part of such a system.

But about pilot-eating Nazi rocket fighters…

I read Mano Ziegler’s memoir Rocket Fighter at an early age and was mildly traumatized by his account of how a pilot in an otherwise survivable heavy landing, in the Me 163A development aircraft, was knocked unconscious and dissolved by the 85% high-test peroxide T-Stoff oxidizer, like someone who’d annoyed a Bond villain. The fuel also caused more merciful but equally lethal explosions. On the bright side, one thing that the tailless Me 163 had going for it was that it flew quite normally at up to 600 mph, hitting 623 mph on one high-speed run – to the credit of designer Alexander Lippisch.

Paperclipped to the US after the war, Lippisch saw his delta-wing projects (beloved of Luft46 fans) reflected in Convair’s deltas, but then found himself working for Collins Radio in sleepy Cedar Rapids, Iowa. There, he invented and patented a wing-in-ground-effect (WIG) surface-skimming vehicle. (At the time, nothing was known of Rostislav Alexeyev’s ekranoplan work in Russia.) Lippisch’s design featured an anhedral reverse-delta wing, contoured so that the trailing edge was closest to, and parallel to, the water surface. As the craft accelerated, ram pressure built up under the wing, lifting the craft off the water, while the delta design ensured that the center of pressure remained constant as the ride height increased. Unlike the Russian craft, the Lippisch WIG did not need complex autostabilization.

Leaving Collins, Lippisch worked with Germany’s Rheinflugzeugbau (RFB) on a production vehicle, with German government sponsorship. Lippisch died in 1976 and the government project ended soon after.

The WIG bug is infectious and persistent. It caught RFB’s Hanno Fischer, who kept the flame alive and, by the 1990s, had developed an eight-seat vehicle called the Airfish 8. Around 2000, the prototype and production rights were transferred to a company called Flightship, in Darwin, Australia. Big plans came to nothing, but later the rights and prototypes were sold again, to a company called Wigetworks in Singapore – where it seemed, for a while, as if the manta-shaped vehicle’s travels had reached an end.

Until last week. Wigetworks has reached an agreement on further development and exploitation of the Airfish design with ST Engineering. The announcement was a little vague and made via LinkedIn, but what’s significant is the ST is a hard-headed aerospace, defense and maritime company that knows about both fast boats and the market, and is calling the WIG a tool for transport, tourism, logistics and maritime patrol.

I have some notes from a conversation with Fischer, more than 20 years ago. (I was trying to work out a trip to Darwin for Popular Science.) The size limit on Lippisch WIGs, he said, was a matter of mismatch of power – as the vehicle got larger, it needed more power for liftoff than for cruise. The Airfish 8 is nicely balanced with a 500 hp Chevy V-8 geared to its twin propellers.

But even a smallish vehicle these days can be useful and carry an array of sensors. Cruising at 80 knots and dashing to 100 knots, without much of a wake, it represents a difficult target for anti-ship or air-to-surface weapons, and at any range it’s hard to see except on a serious airborne radar.

Again, there are civil applications. If the ride quality over the median sea state is acceptable the WIG can be a handy transport vehicle for littoral communities that are otherwise limited to slow ferryboats – either for regular traffic or priorities such as medevac. In any case, it would be cool to see Lippisch’s concept in service, after 60 years.

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