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JAS 39 Gripen: The Best (Non-Stealth) Fighter On Earth?

JAS-39 Gripen
SAAB JAS 39. Image: Creative Commons.

Of all the aerospace giants, Sweden’s Saab AB has followed perhaps the least likely path. In an era when modern fighters are typically designed by a consortia of firms from a variety of states, small Sweden has managed to produce a fighter capable of competing with any on the export market. The JAS 39 Gripen now serves in half a dozen air forces, and remains competitive in the bidding to serve in a dozen more. How did the “Griffen,” named after the Saab corporate logo, come to be?


The Gripen began life in 1979, as consequence of a Swedish government decision to develop a domestic replacement for the Draken and Viggen jet fighters. Sweden was one of the smallest countries in the world to maintain an aerospace industry sufficiently sophisticated to develop an advanced jet fighter, and the Gripen helped ensure that the industry would remain in good health.

The Gripen emerged after the proliferation of the great fourth generation fighters (F-14, F-15, F-16, F/A-18, MiG-29, Su-27) and could apply lessons learned from the development and procurement of those airframes. Sweden deliberately eschewed stealth because of concerns over costs, and focused on building an aircraft that modest-budgeted customers could afford.

The plane first flew in December 1988, and achieved initial operating status in 1996. Thus far 306 Gripens have been built, with a total of ten lost due to accidents of various types. A couple of the accidents early on in the Gripen’s development threatened the program, but the fighter managed to survive those bumps.


The Gripen’s chief notable characteristics are its small size and low cost relative to other 4+ generation fighters on the market. Although flyaway costs are always complicated to calculate, the Gripen seems to come in at less than $60 million. Moreover, Jane’s has reported that the Gripen has the lowest operational cost of any modern fighter.

The Gripen has a reputation for being pilot-friendly, with easy to grasp displays and a relatively uncomplicated interface. With respect to lethality, the Gripen was the first fighter in the world to carry the deadly Meteor air-to-air missile, a beyond visual range (BVR) weapon that can track and kill targets at a range of up to 80 miles. The Gripen C can carry four Meteor missiles, while the Gripen E can carry seven.

In terms of specs, the Gripen E has a max takeoff weight of 16500 kg, a speed for mach 2 with supercruise ability, and a range of 1500km. The Gripen does well on lists of both BVR and dogfighting combatants.


Saab has exported the Gripen to Hungary, the Czech Republic, Thailand, Brazil, and South Africa. Bids remain alive, to varying degrees of health, with Finland, Canada, Botswana, Columbia, Croatia, India, Indonesia, and the Philippines, with another dozen or so countries expressing some interest.

Saab has been relatively open with technology transfer, and has facilitated the inclusion of local firms in the manufacturing of some components. This has made the Gripen an attractive option for governments that struggle to explain their defense spending to skeptical publics.

Notably, the United Kingdom holds an effective veto over the export of the Gripen because of the involvement of BAE systems. This has prevented Argentina from acquiring the aircraft.

All that said, some have alleged that the Gripen has succeeded for reasons other than its fundamental quality. Various allegations of bribery were lodged against Saab over the years, although few successful prosecutions have resulted. In Brazil, the acquisition of the Gripen led to significant accusations of fraud against then-President Lula da Silva. The allegations involved a side payment to Lula’s son. Although Lula remains in prison, the case has yet to be fully resolved.

In the case of Switzerland, the Gripen somehow ran afoul of the ongoing court case against right-wing provocateur Julian Assange, as his followers mobilized around opposition to a referendum that would have allowed the Swiss Air Force to purchase 22 fighters. And in Austria and the Czech Republic, investigations of bribery produced a scandal for a country that normally prides itself on transparency.


As the list above suggests, the Gripen production line remains alive and vital. Bill Sweetman referred to the Gripen as the “future of fighters” because of its reasonable cost, significant capabilities, and the ease of upgrade. The “software first” approach has made upgrades easy and affordable compared to the rest of the market, where improvements are notoriously expensive.

JAS 39

Underside of a Gripen in flight, 2012.

JAS 39

A Swedish JAS-39 Gripen returns to the play areas of the Arctic Challenge exercise Sept. 24, 2013, over Norway, after taking on fuel from a U.S. Air Force KC-135R Stratotanker. The JAS-39, in coordination with aircraft from other nations, formed a Blue assault force, which had to bypass or neutralize an opposing Red force attempting to stop them from an overall objective outlined in the day’s scenario. (U.S. Air Force photo by 1st Lt. Christopher Mesnard/Released)

In particular, the Gripen E should remain an effective air defense platform for a very long time, notwithstanding improvements in stealth technology among Saab’s competitors. Saab has also demonstrated a willingness to adapt to customer requirements, even toying with the idea of a carrier-capable Gripen when it seemed that India and Brazil might be interested in such a variant.

Jas 39 Gripen: What Next?  

No Gripen has yet engaged in combat, either against air or ground targets. Instead, the Gripen has come to serve as the modern mainstay of a number of second-tier air forces, offering a low cost but effective option for countries that do not expect to engage in serious conflict. Nevertheless, the Gripen’s impressive capabilities should serve the air forces well if they ever become entangled in a conflict. The low cost and ease of maintenance suggest that when the time comes, the Gripen will be ready to fight.

Robert Farley is a Senior Lecturer at the University of Kentucky. 

Written By

Dr. Robert Farley has taught security and diplomacy courses at the Patterson School since 2005. He received his BS from the University of Oregon in 1997, and his Ph.D. from the University of Washington in 2004. Dr. Farley is the author of Grounded: The Case for Abolishing the United States Air Force (University Press of Kentucky, 2014), the Battleship Book (Wildside, 2016), and Patents for Power: Intellectual Property Law and the Diffusion of Military Technology (University of Chicago, 2020). He has contributed extensively to a number of journals and magazines, including the National Interest, the Diplomat: APAC, World Politics Review, and the American Prospect. Dr. Farley is also a founder and senior editor of Lawyers, Guns and Money.




    October 25, 2021 at 4:08 am

    Wow, Assange went from a left wing leader on military info to a right wing provocateur.
    Neat trick.

    • William Ford

      July 22, 2022 at 6:58 pm

      My thought exactly.

  2. Hans

    October 25, 2021 at 4:54 am

    What if you have to use the plane in a war involving another country and you lose half of your planes? Can saab produce 10-20 planes in a month, let.s say? No. Can saab offer in one order enough spare parts for 10-20 planes? I doubt. That is why the gripen is not a real fighter plane, it does not come on numbers. If you might encounter trouble in the future, don.t buy gripen. If you don.t forsee a conflict, why do you need a fighter plane?

  3. Oxide

    October 25, 2021 at 6:55 am

    Urrrrr thats a euro fighter typhoon if I’m not mistaken??

  4. Marcos Miranda

    October 25, 2021 at 7:25 am

    Dear Mr. Farley,
    “Lula remains in prison” is not an updated information.


    October 25, 2021 at 8:43 am

    I’m not sure when this article was written but unfortunately former Brazil’s president isn’t in prison anymore. His allies arranged to take him out of jail.

  6. Chris Bailey

    October 25, 2021 at 9:39 am

    It looks sexy and capable, but it is little more than a single seat Biz jet. They’ve done a sweet job marketing it to non-combatant nations as an economical way for their citizens to “feel” safe.

  7. Steve

    October 25, 2021 at 10:39 am

    Best non-stealth fighter like…for target practice? Other than that, no. If you wanted a light fighter you’d buy an F-16. It’s better in every measurable way than the gripens (including the E), and comes with the added benefit of a robust supply chain on the back of thousands in service worldwide, and all the follow on development money that comes with that.

    There is literally no logical reason to ever choose a gripen over an F-16, which is why the E has statistically no sales despite 15 years of marketing on the backs of authors like…well…you.

  8. Michael Nunez

    October 25, 2021 at 10:55 am

    The Gripen is a light weight fighter . Any comparison to a F-15 , Su-27 , or a F-18 that is an equal is just not there . F-15 can carry up to 14 Air to Air with a heavy Rader . Su-27’s can carry up to 12 . Countries like the Philippines are perfect for this Fighter .

  9. Racerx

    October 25, 2021 at 5:04 pm

    There’s another more precise term than “non-stealth”, it’s called a target. Which is what all Gen IV aircraft are.

  10. Aubrey Sonnenberg

    March 2, 2022 at 11:34 pm

    Too complex and expensive for South Africa to keep operating…after the bribe was paid there was no interest in maintaining airworthiness.

  11. Edward Julian

    March 3, 2022 at 5:30 am

    The moment I read “right-wing provocateur Julian Assange” I stopped reading. Assange, man who is risking his life and hidden in exile for years, now in jail, all to expose corruption in the military and governments, is for this “journalist” propagandist Robert Farley (FarCeley) a right wing provocateur.. specifically referred to as such.

    This article is written by a biased propagandist, not objective reporting.

  12. William Ford

    July 22, 2022 at 7:01 pm

    From the guy who wrote Grounded: The Case for Abolishing the United States Air Force. Also, since when has Assange been “Right Wing”?

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