Meet the JAS-39 Gripen: Contrary to all expectations, Ukraine’s air force remains in the fight almost a year after Putin launched his shambolic invasion. Yet feats of force preservation and adaptation mustn’t obscure that the Air Force’s Soviet-vintage MiG-29 and Su-27 fighters remain badly outranged by the radars and weapons of modernized Russian Su-30SM and Su-35S fighters and MiG-31BM interceptors. And while transfers of Soviet aircraft and aircraft parts have helped replace Ukrainian losses, those are a rapidly exhausting resource.
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Sooner or later, Ukraine must induct new jet fighters into service—and they sure aren’t buying them from Russia.
Arguably, the two cost-efficient aircraft seen as most viable for Ukraine are the ubiquitous U.S. F-16 Fighting Falcon and Sweden’s unique Saab JAS 39 Gripen-C (“Griffin”) single-engine tactical fighter tailor-made to operate at low cost and operated in cold climates from rugged satellite bases, with limited maintenance, against Russia’s air force.
After all, Ukraine has limited resources and must disperse aircraft basing due to risks of Russian missile attacks—and a report by a British think tank calls out the Gripen as “by far the most suitable candidate in terms of operational requirements.” Indeed, in December Kyiv specifically requested Gripen-Cs from Stockholm, only to be politely rebuffed.
But for practical reasons, the rival F-16 is far more likely to form the future core of the Ukrainian Air Force—though we can’t count out the Gripen’s involvement entirely.
This article looks at the background and capabilities of the JAS-39 Gripen-C/D, its advantages and downsides compared to the F-16, and the difficulties of supplying Ukraine with the Swedish fighter designed for guerilla air warfare against Russia.
JAS-39 Gripen: Background and Capabilities
Quite remarkably for a country with a population of 10.4 million today, Sweden has sustained the design and production of advanced jet fighters since the 1940s.
During the Cold War, Sweden was officially neutral, but perceived as Western-leaning and thus potentially a target of the Soviet military. Having observed the success of Israeli jets destroying Arab air forces on the ground during 1967’s Six Day War, Stockholm in the 1970s sought to implement a doctrine called Bas 90 in which its air force could disperse across a network of 200 satellite airbases and even stretches of highway. That would prevent their destruction on the ground by Soviet missiles and bombers, allowing sustained aerial resistance. Bas 90 is of interest to U.S. Pacific strategists who fear Chinese missiles could devastate U.S. aircraft on the ground in Japan and Guam.
To support Bas 90, Stockholm wanted a new Mach 2 fighter capable of performing air superiority, ground attack, and reconnaissance missions staging from short, crude runways. Funding the JAS 39’s development was politically divisive, but Sweden’s parliament narrowly approved the project in 1982-1983. Four years later, a Gripen prototype made its first flight.
The resulting single-engine lightweight fighter conceptually shared much in common with the U.S. F-16 fighter, matching a maneuverable but unstable airframe with a computerized fly-by-wire flight control system to stabilize it.
But as for the F-16, it took many iterations and the crash of two prototypes in 1989 and 1993 before that system was tweaked to full reliability. The JAS-39 only officially entered operational service in 1997, by which time the Soviet threat no longer existed.
Due to extensive use of composite materials, the Gripen weighed 3/4s the weight of an F-16 and had a smaller radar cross-section. It also differed in that it featured canards – a second pair of small wings near the cockpit – improving maneuverability and lift at the expense of speed. Tilting the canards sharply allows their use as an airbrake, which combined with skid-resistant landing gears, permits a JAS-39 to land on 600-meter-long runways or highways (see video), fulfilling Bas-90 requirements.
For propulsion, the Gripen used a Volvo RM-12 engine based on the F404 turbofan used on the U.S. Navy’s Hornet jets, with redesigned fan blades to minimize radar reflectivity and birdstrike risks, and restructuring to ease disassembly for maintenance. Furthermore, it included a built-in auxiliary power unit and onboard digital self-diagnostic system that made it easier for a handful of technicians to maintain them in remote areas. A six-person ground crew, including just one specialist, could rearm and refuel a Gripen in 10 minutes for another sortie.
For armament, the JAS-39 had a 27-millimeter Mauser revolver cannon in the fuselage and the ability to mount six large missiles underwing and fuselage – with one slot usually hefting an electronic warfare pod – and two short-range missiles on its wingtips.
Its PS-05/A doppler multi-mode radar could track air and surface targets while resisting jamming and guiding up to four AIM-120 missiles onto targets simultaneously. Other avionics included a ring-laser inertial navigation system, a radar warning receiver, and support for a towed decoy to divert attacks.
The Swedish Air Force initially ordered 204 single-seat JAS-39As and two-seat JAS-39Bs, which lack the cannon and some fuel storage, but eventually downsized the order to 100. However, the Czech Republic and Hungary each also operate 14 Gripens under lease. Other operators include Brazil (planned 26), South Africa (26) and Thailand (12, but one lost in a crash).
By 1997, the improved JAS 39C and two-seat JAS-39D models were ordered for a third production batch. These notably added in-flight refueling capability, GPS navigation, color multi-function displays compatible with night-vision goggles, full digital engine controls, and the CDL39 datalink interoperable with NATO systems. The Gripen’s computing power was expanded 66 percent, and an EWS-30 electronic warfare suite was added including an automated self-defense jammer.
At present, the Swedish Air Force is supplementing 84 operational Gripen-C/Ds with 60 heavily modernized Gripen-Es featuring a powerful AESA radar, reduced radar cross-section, extended range, and the more powerful F414 turbofan, allows supersonic cruising. To cooperate better with Gripen-Es, the C/Ds are being upgraded to the MS20 standard integrating a laser-targeter, a new infrared reconnaissance pod, enhanced Link-16 datalinks to exchange data with friendly forces, and a ground-collision avoidance system reducing accident risks.
Weaponry integrated to date on JAS-39 Gripens includes U.S., European, Israeli and Swedish weapons:
-Sidewinder, Darter, IRIS-T, ASRAAM, and Python 4 short-range air-to-air missiles
-Meteor, MICA, Skyflash and AIM-120 medium/long-range radar-guided air-to-air missiles
-RBS-15F anti-ship and Maverick air-to-surface missiles
-Paveway and Small Diameter laser- and -GPS guided bombs and BK90 Mjolnir gliding cluster-bomblet dispensers
-KEPD-350 Taurus cruise missiles (range 310 miles)
-Litening and Vicon 70 reconnaissance pods
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A total of six Gripens have been lost in accidents, resulting in one fatality. The type’s only combat deployment saw Sicily-based Gripens fly reconnaissance missions over Libya in 2011.
However, in a seven-day exercise in 2015 with China’s air force, Thai Gripen-C/Ds reportedly defeated visiting Chinese J-11 fighters based on Russia’s powerful Su-27 twin-engine fighter in beyond-visual range (BVR) combat, downing 41 J-11s for 9 losses—an outcome confirmed by Chinese sources.
The Gripen’s BVR advantage reportedly came down to superior situational awareness. The J-11 had a radar cross-section of 12 square meters and the Gripen, 1.5 square meters; the JAS-39’s radar reportedly detected J-11s from 100 miles away, the J-11’s spotted Gripens at 75 miles. Furthermore, the RTAF’s AIM-120 missiles outranged the R-77-type missile used by China—and multiples could be fired in succession.
However, the Thai Gripens were minced in within visual range combat 25:1, due to lacking thrust compared to the J-11, and (likely more importantly) using outdated AIM-9L short-range missiles. While Thai Gripens later sparred with more modern Chinese J-10 fighters in later exercises, reliable information on the outcome hasn’t been made public.
Gripens for Ukraine?
While Gripen-C/D isn’t cutting-edge, it could still help level the playing field in the predominantly beyond-visual range aerial warfare taking place over Ukraine thanks to its better radar and compatibility with the AIM-120 and Meteor long-range missile, all of which have substantially greater reach than radars and missiles on Ukrainian jets.
Furthermore, the Gripen’s optimization for operation from dispersed bases and short runways, easy maintainability, and low operating costs make it seemingly tailor-made for Ukraine’s underdog air force.
Unfortunately, there’s a big obstacle to giving Ukraine Gripen-Cs: there aren’t that many up for grabs. Sweden would have to give away some of its 84 Gripen-Cs in operational service for Ukraine to operate them in useful numbers.
While those fighters could be replaced if Stockholm purchases more Gripen-Es, it would still leave a gap requiring years to fill at a time of high tensions. Admittedly, some countries have proven willing to donate large chunks of their active military assets to Ukraine—notably Slovakia is offering to donate all 11 of its combat aircraft to Ukraine. But Sweden is not yet part of the NATO alliance.
A Gripen donation still isn’t entirely unthinkable. Sweden is currently donating from its active military some of its most advanced equipment in the form of Archer self-propelled artillery and CV9040C infantry fighting vehicles comparable to U.S. Bradleys but with a bigger 40-millimeter gun and advanced active protection system.
The Czech Republic might conceivably relinquish its lease on Gripens early for Ukraine’s benefit if given Swedish permission—but those are the Czech Air Force’s only fighters until it receives F-35s. Other Gripen operators are neutral or pro-Russian.
Stockholm could yet have a change of heart, procuring additional Gripen-Es and passing on Gripen-Cs to Ukraine, especially given security guarantees from the U.S. or its allies, particularly if Turkey stops blocking Sweden’s NATO membership process. Donating Gripens could also be good for business in the long run if it persuaded Kyiv to eventually procure new Gripen-Es—presumably with foreign financing.
JAS-39 Gripen versus F-16
Despite the Gripen’s substantial appeal, the easier solution is clear: to give Kyiv U.S.-built F-16s. Compared to approaching 300 Gripens built by 2023, over 4,600 F-16s have been manufactured over the last four-and-a-half decades and served in 25 countries. Even discounting obsolete F-16A/Bs, that leaves an abundance of airframes, capacity to train F-16 pilots, and repair depots and spare parts inventories distributed across many countries. F-16s are also low-cost aircraft, though still pricier than the Gripen.
These factors make it far less complicated to transfer F-16C/Ds to Kyiv and sustain them, as the Netherlands is reportedly considering doing. But F-16Cs also boast some non-trivial performance advantages:
-higher thrust-to-weight ratio, giving it superior acceleration and maneuverability
-greater maximum payload of 8 tons of weapons on 9 hard points
-compatible with a wider range of U.S. ground-attack weapons
Should Kyiv receive the latest F-16 Block 70/72s, these would also have markedly superior APG-83 AESA radars, advanced avionics and conformal fuel tanks that could give them an edge over most Russian fighters. F-16s could also pair nicely with a buy of low-cost South Korean Golden Eagle trainer/light fighter soon entering service in Poland, which share many common systems.
Disadvantages of the F-16C/D compared to the Gripen remain:
-Incompatibility with European weapons, especially the superb Meteor long-range air-to-air missile
-Slightly larger radar cross-section
–Allegedly, the Gripen’s electronic warfare suite is “optimized specifically for countering Russian fighter and SAM radars”Less optimized for rugged operations
-50 percent higher operating costs per flight hour according to a 2012 study
It remains to be seen when and how Ukraine’s allies will help it acquire Western-built fighters. Realistically, it might require a half-year or longer from that decision to see aircraft operational in Ukraine, so it will not have any near-term impact on the war.
However, this transition must take place eventually—and the sooner it’s set in motion, the more unfavorable dragging out the war becomes for Putin.
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Sébastien Roblin writes on the technical, historical and political aspects of international security and conflict for publications including The National Interest, NBC News, Forbes.com, War is Boring and 19FortyFive, where he is Defense-in-Depth editor. He holds a Master’s degree from Georgetown University and served with the Peace Corps in China. You can follow his articles on Twitter.