Why Can’t the JAS 39 Beat the F-35 in Sales?: Pepsi Cola, Burger King, and Volkswagen all share one thing in common – they’re second in their respective market, and while still respectable, it shows that someone was better. Some accept coming in as the runner-up, while others will go on a lengthy media tour and suggest, “You can run the best campaign,” and apparently have victory stolen from you.
In that latter example, it wasn’t close to the best campaign – but that’s another issue entirely.
Yet, it is easy to see how Saab’s president and CEO, Micael Johansson, recently told reporters last year of his “extreme frustration” at the lack of recent sales of the company’s Gripen combat aircraft.
Perhaps, it is just an overhyped aircraft?
Yet, Johansson clearly doesn’t see it that way. In summer of last year, he spoke with reporters at the company’s Stockholm headquarters, where Johansson admitted that the single-engined ‘Euro-canard’ had struggled to meet the export expectations that his predecessors had laid out for the multirole fighter.
According to a report from Janes, he quickly added that it was not a reflection on the quality of the aircraft, but instead was down to politics.
“It is extremely frustrating to say the least, and I can say that it is not about the [Gripen] product that we have developed and manufactured. If it had been a completely level playing field in terms of not talking about security, politics, and other areas, then I think we would have been much better off [in terms of securing sales],” said Johansson.
“In many countries, the leverage of the U.S. is tremendous,” he continued. “They are not so easy to work against [in the market], and it is politics.”
It is worth noting, however, that Saab had largely failed in securing additional sales for either its earlier Gripen C/D or its latest Gripen E/F range, while international sales campaigns had scored no successes since Brazil joined the Gripen E/F program in 2014.
JAS 39: Failure to Launch?
The JAS 39 Gripen (Griffin) made its first flight in December 1988, and it entered operational service with the Swedish Air Force in 1997. A total of 204 aircraft in three batches had been ordered by Swedish Air Forces, which to date has taken delivery of 74 aircraft.
The JAS 39 became the first true Swedish multirole combat aircraft – capable of conducting interception, ground attack, and reconnaissance. It is presently offered in two modern variants: C- and E-series, yet even those are in need of some updates, and last month it was announced that the Gripen C-series would enter an “upgrade process” that could see those models remain in service until at least 2035.
The Swedish Defence Materiel Administration (FMV) awarded a SEK 500 million ($52 million) contract with Saab to provide maintenance services for the fighter aircraft. Saab will provide capability improvements to the JAS 39 to maintain its operational relevance for the next decade, as well as cost-effective solutions to help sustain the aircraft for an even longer period.
To date, just a total of 158 Gripens have been produced, and the aircraft has been exported around the globe in relatively small numbers. Current operators include only Brazil, the Czech Republic, Hungary, South Africa, and Thailand, while the United Kingdom’s Empire Test Pilots’ School also operates Gripens in a training capacity.
However, in June, the Czech Republic announced that it was looking to acquire upwards of 24 new fighters as its lease for its fleet of Gripens will expire in 2027. The Lockheed Martin F-35A Lightning II has been seen as the leading contender, but Fredrik Jörgensen, Swedish ambassador to the Czech Republic, had said in a recent interview that the Czech Air Force could keep the Gripens that it leased from Sweden for free.
By contrast, more than a dozen nations around the globe have adopted the Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II.
A big factor is that it provides greater compatibility among America’s allies and partners, including a number of NATO members.
Perhaps now that Sweden has formally asked to join the alliance, the views could change.
Then there is also the fact that the F-35 is an actual fifth-generation multirole aircraft with stealth capabilities, while the Swedish Gripen is still just an advanced fourth-generation fighter.
Given the threats from Russia, perhaps it isn’t politics that is the issue, but the capabilities.
A Senior Editor for 1945, Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers, and websites with over 3,000 published pieces over a twenty-year career in journalism. He regularly writes about military hardware, firearms history, cybersecurity, and international affairs. Peter is also a Contributing Writer for Forbes. You can follow him on Twitter: @PeterSuciu.