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.
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.