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How Sweden’s JAS 39 Gripen Fighter Beat China’s Air Force

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

It was back in 2015 when an intense war game in Thailand pitted Chinese and Thai air forces—and what transpired in the skies showcased the vulnerabilities of many of the Chinese pilots and their fighter planes.

For this particular war game, the Chinese brought with them Shenyang J-11s, which are twin-engine jet fighters whose airframe is based on the Soviet-designed Sukhoi Su-27. As for the Thai air force, they decided to deploy JAS 39 Gripen fighters, which are single-engine multirole aircraft manufactured by the Swedish aerospace company Saab AB.

J-11 Lacking Long-Range Skills

The end result was that the J-11 was considered the superior dogfighter but the Gripen was deemed the more formidable long-range shooter. According to the aviation website Alert 5, the “Gripen fared better in the beyond-visual-range (BVR) arena. With 24 percent of the kills at range beyond fifty kilometers.”

It continues: “There were important lessons for the Chinese side. The Chinese pilots had poor situation awareness. Too much focus was on front of the aircraft rather than all around. There was a lack of coordination between the attacking aircraft and its sweeper escorts. The pilots were not experienced in avoiding missile shots. Their responses were too mechanical and could not judge correctly on the evasive techniques for missiles with different ranges.”

As for the large-scale aerial showdowns, “the Thais were able to score kills while playing the attacker by taking down the Chinese defenders. When the Chinese attack, they had difficulty making it pass the Thai defenders. The only success for the Chinese when attacking is when they were protected by the Gripen, that was a low-level attack. In two versus two scenarios, the Chinese found that they are poor in judging the threat and the evasive actions were insufficient. The fire control and weapons integration for the J-11 is still behind the Saab Gripen.”

‘Fell Into Traps’

Despite excelling in on the dogfighting front, “the Chinese still picked up important lessons from the Thais. They found that when dealing with Thai attacks using the sun as cover, the strategy of the Chinese is simplified. When in an advantageous position, the Chinese were in a rush to score victory and fell into traps put up by the Thais.”

When the final results were tallied, the Thai air force scored a major victory, with the Gripens shooting down forty-two J-11s and the Chinese side making thirty-four kills. Moreover, nearly 90 percent of Thai air force’s successful kills occurred at a range of at least nineteen miles, while the Chinese nabbed just 14 percent of their kills within the same range.

Improving Pilot Skills

It appears that the Chinese military commanders are already aware that pilots need better training.

“Numerous professional articles and speeches by high-ranking Chinese officers indicate the (Chinese air force) does not believe that its past training practices prepared its pilots and other personnel for actual combat,” the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency noted in a 2019 report.

The Chinese military “recognizes that a gap exists between the skills of its pilots and those in the air forces of powerful nations. To address training weaknesses, (a former air force) commander said that when the (air force) trains, it must ‘train for battle’ instead of ‘doing things for show … (or) going through the motions,’” it continued.

Ethen Kim Lieser is a Washington state-based Science and Tech Editor who has held posts at Google, The Korea Herald, Lincoln Journal Star, AsianWeek, and Arirang TV. Follow or contact him on LinkedIn.

Written By

Ethen Kim Lieser is a Washington state-based Science and Tech Editor who has held posts at Google, The Korea Herald, Lincoln Journal Star, AsianWeek, and Arirang TV.

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