The JAS 39 had a very unique mission: protect Sweden during the Cold War from Russia – We’re talking Saab here. No, not the funny-looking Swedish car you remember from the 1980s and 90s. This is a fighter plane from Saab. Really. And it’s amazingly easy to fly with great specifications and straightforward updatable software. Enter the story of the JAS 39 Gripen Fighter.
Popular as an Export Because the Price Is Right
To be sure, the Saab AB JAS 39 Gripen is a non-stealth fourth-generation fighter, so let’s not get carried away. But it’s popular with air forces from smaller countries such as Hungary, the Czech Republic, and Thailand because its price runs cheap at under $60 million an airplane – that’s four million less than the F-16. Plus, it’s relatively inexpensive to maintain. And it’s sharp. It looks like an F/A-18E/F Super Hornet.
The Swedes even considered buying F-16s or F/A-18 from the Americans in the early 1980s in case a war with Russia ever broke out, but the government decided to build its own fighter. That was a good decision because the Gripen has staying power. There were a few accidents and lost airplanes along the way, but the indigenous program has made it this far with style. The Gripen has been in service with the Swedish Air Force since 1997. The Swedes built 306 JAS 39s and decided not to make them with stealth characteristics to cut down on price.
JAS 39 Gripen: Fun to Fly and Armed Well
Check out the specs and armaments and you can see why the Gripen is so popular around the world. Pilots like its “carefree maneuvering.” It has a large heads-up display and a quality decision support system. The number of easy to execute software updates are endless. The Gripen can be fueled in-air. With its Volvo RM12 after-burning turbofan engine, it can fly at MACH 2 with a range of 932 miles.
The Gripen carries beyond visual range Meteor air-to-air missiles that can eliminate a target from 80 miles away. There’s also a 27mm Mauser BK-27 revolver cannon. It can also be armed with anti-ship missiles and precision-guided bombs. The Gripen-E series has a better engine, a new radar, and can carry larger payloads.
Not Tried in Combat
One problem with the JAS 39 Gripen is that it’s untested in combat. It performs well in dogfighting exercises but hasn’t seen actual fighting. That may be fine with the Swedes but countries like Hungary and the Czech Republic have the Russians to worry about and it would be nice if the Gripen had a better track record. But the Gripen will continue to be popular in the export market. You get a lot of airplane for the money.
Countries could learn a lot from the Swedes in how to produce an indigenous fighter plane without a lot of different defense contractors. So don’t chuckle if you hear the word Saab and think of the automobile. The JAS 39 Gripen may come to a country nearby and surprise you with its quality.
1945’s new Defense and National Security Editor, Brent M. Eastwood, PhD, is the author of Humans, Machines, and Data: Future Trends in Warfare. He is an Emerging Threats expert and former U.S. Army Infantry officer.