A Swedish ground attack fighter

Immediately after World War 2 fighter aircraft were given priority as this was assessed as the absolutely most important type of weapon to enable Sweden’s neutrality to be maintained, and if another war should start would help to prevent an enemy from both bombing Sweden to pieces and at the same time claiming air superiority. Hence it was the SAAB B18 aircraft that would continue to be the principal bomber, reconnaissance and ground-attack aircraft to start with. The B18 would also contribute to an interesting history and among other things be the first Swedish aircraft to be used to test airborne anti-ship and air-to-ground missiles.

Even SAAB’s single-engined J21 fighter was switched over to a ground attack role, which was a better use for it, and the J21 also became the first Swedish aircraft to be equipped with a jet engine, or gas turbine as they were called then. This was a matter of converting a propeller aircraft to a jet, which was itself unique wherein the J21R jet was developed from an experiment into a weapon actually serving in the Swedish Air Force.

A number of projects were therefore set in motion in order to find a replacement. One of the more spectacular was a flying wing, that would be powered by two RM2 turbines, de Havilland Ghosts, the same engine that would power the Flying Barrel. However as time went by a more conventional design would be preferred. Quite soon the focus would lie on what would become the A32 Lansen (Lance).

The A32 ground attack Lance

Although it was planned that the Type 32 aircraft would be produced in different versions for a range of tasks, it was the ground attack variant that was given top priority. Modifications to the SAAB J29 Flying Barrel and J28 de Havilland Vampire for the ground attack role had commenced, but really they had insufficient range to be able to replace the now obsolete SAAB B18. The A32 Lance would now be required to reach out across the Baltic Sea and all the way into its eastern harbours, which would be a natural starting point for a possible seaborne invasion by the Soviet bloc. The right aircraft would need speed, long range and the ability to carry a lot of different weapons.

A demonstrative image of the weapon alternatives for the A32A Lance. Note that the then top secret Rb04 anti-shipping missile is not presented. Photo Flygvapenmuseum

One particular weapon characterised the Lance’s role within the Swedish Air Force for combating an amphibious operation i.e. an attempt by an enemy to land an invading force somewhere along Sweden’s very long coastline. Sweden had for a long time been working on the development of extensive coastal defence, but the length of that coastline made it impossible to defend every single invasion beach or inlet with sufficient strength. Nor could the Navy be everywhere at once. Therefore a fast attack force with long range would be a trump card for the Swedish military in the case of war.

The Type 04 missile, perhaps the first airborne anti-ship missile with its own seeker head, considerable increased the A32 Lance’s striking power against maritime units. Having its own seeker head meant that after firing one or more Type 04 missiles the aircraft could turn away while the enemy had its hands full trying to stop the incoming attack. The Type 04 was also had a powerful enough warhead to break many a ship in half.

Other A32 weaponry consisted of various types of ground attack rockets and bombs, including flares to be dropped to illuminate targets at night to assist following attack aircraft.  The fixed aircraft armament was four 20 mm automatic cannons in the nose.

The Ground Attack Group – the boss’s cudgel

In 1938 the Swedish Air Force had started to organise some of its squadrons into a compound organisation called simply the Ground Attack Group. Its main focus was on bombing operations, but to start with No. 8 Wing fighters at Barkarby, Stockholm and a reconnaissance element from No. 6 Wing at Karlsborg were also included. However after 1942 the principal task of the Group became clearer. Three of the four Wings were bomber squadrons while the fourth consisted of fighters. After all, the bombers needed escorts. By grouping the bomber forces together, which later became the attack group, under an overall organisation, the Chief of the Swedish Air Force and also the Chief of Staff were able to concentrate units on to a specific task and thereby increase the chances of success. This force was therefore informally called “The boss’s cudgel”.

From 1957 all four Wings that formed the Ground Attack Group were equipped with the A32A Lance, which markedly increased the firepower of the unit. Mind you, the tasks that the Group was expected to carry out would have been extremely dangerous. As a quotation from the “Tactical Instructions for Attack Groups” from 1961 states:

 The mission of Attack Groups is tactical offence. An Attack group may confront and attack an opponent at a great distance beyond our country’s coast or border. Offensive operations always carry a particular risk of loss since those targets faced by the attacker are of particular importance to the aggressor and as a rule are well defended. Therefore the probable effect and risk of loss must be weighed against each other when planning and deciding on a mission.”

Targets may lie on the other side of the Baltic, in the form of harbours where troops could be assembled for ferrying, hostile radar stations, air bases and even missile batteries. These targets are of great value to the opponent. Attack pilots knew that in case of war their first mission could be their last. Death was something that entered into the equation.

Low, warlike and dangerous

As time went by, Swedish ground attack units developed one or more special tactics that attracted a certain amount of international attention. One particular aspect was that Swedish attack operations were performed at low or extremely low height as much as possible. Flying low was a way to hide from enemy radar and also make it difficult for observers on the ground to detect aircraft, as long as the attacker kept away from them.

A dilemma was that the major nations had many pilots with experience from World War 2, and later from the Korean War in which Soviet Russian pilots participated as “instructors”. Therefore in the event of war Swedish pilots would have to count on meeting pilots who had real fighting experience that counted for a great deal during the Second World War

In order to compensate for this the intensity of pilot training was increased. The principle was that the training should take place in so warlike conditions as possible. All this was so that the pilots would be as mentally prepared as possible in case of war. At the same time there was great pressure on manufacturers to produce new and more advanced aircraft for the squadrons as quickly as possible so as not to fall behind any adversaries in terms of technology.

This combination of factors proved to be deadly. Out of the 447 SAAB 32 Lances that were constructed, one third crashed. 100 flight crew members and 7 civilians died, the reasons turning out to be technical deficiencies arising as the result of a hectic testing programme and shortcomings in pilot training. This number of losses was almost the same as those expected in a conflict, and even raised apprehensions abroad. At the same time it was obvious that Swedish pilots were in general extremely competent.

Attack units were affected most, partly due to the small margins within which they were operating. Lance pilots had a fairly well-earned reputation for being daring, and there were stories of ground mechanics having to pull tree branches out of the air intakes not being just rumours. The truth is that even though the Swedish low flying tactics were dangerous, they were also effective. Over water the aircraft would fly so low that if the sea was rough waves could reach the same height as the aircraft.

On one occasion a high-ranking Air Force officer was in the back seat as navigator and observer, and after landing his comments on the experience were “when we were at the lowest level over the water I had my boot uppers up to my ears!” After that, there was at least for a while, a halt to the most extreme manoeuvres.

Stealth tactics instead of Stealth technology

Flying seven feet above the waves was not unusual. Certainly the pilots had an early form of radio altimeter, but without the assistance of a computer it was pilot training and quick reflexes that mattered. They had to fly by eye, and while the pilot was focusing on maintaining the correct height and direction, the navigator in the back was making sure they were on the right course. Only at the very last moment would they climb to the appropriate height to attack, either by then diving or strafing. Afterwards they would head for home, protected by cloud or once again dipping down to the lowest possible height. This could be said to be the original form of what is now called stealth, but instead of, as in the case of American combat aircraft using special materials and shapes to reduce the possibility of being detected by radar, what is called Stealth technology, the Swedish Air Force employed Stealth tactics.

Even though there were some within the Air Force who thought that the high loss rate was the price the service was forced to pay to achieve the desired results, it was not really acceptable. Despite all its abilities, it was evident that the Lance had some technical deficiencies, most of them unnecessary and that could have been rectified at a little calmer rate of development. Also over time the selection criteria for pilot training candidates were reviewed. Adjustments to the psychological assessments led to the weeding out of those who were too willing to take risks, and even though the Lance’s successor, the AJ37 Viggen (Thunderbolt) continued to implement the same daring tactics there was a drastic reduction in losses. The Thunderbolt could also benefit from technical developments with more pilot assistance when flying at low level.

However taking into account that attack squadrons were meant to fly at low level into the lion’s jaws there was certainly a need for a particular type of personality, ready to accept the risk that the first armed mission could well be the last. And in a time when ground attack missiles were a completely new concept and the weapons one had required controlled flight all the way to the target through defensive fire and enemy interceptors, it is to some extent understandable that those who were selected to be ground attack pilots would be willing to take extreme risks. After all, they would in the event of war be flying to an almost certain death. It was also the case that their victims would also pay the price in the form of even greater enemy losses.