A Formidable Rival Of F-35 Stealth Fighter Jets, Saab Gripen’s ‘One Big Drawback’ Impeding Its Sales

Swedish firm Saab’s Gripen is one of the few major multi-role fighter jets marketed worldwide over the course of the last decade. It often competes with the US’ F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, the Eurofighter Typhoon, and the French Rafale jets in global fighter jet deals.

The Saab Gripen

The Gripen is a compact, versatile, single-engine, fighter powered by a Volvo-Flygmotor RM12 engine. The aircraft was the outcome of a joint development project undertaken by Aerotech Telub, Ericsson Microwave Systems, Saab Military Aircraft, and Volvo Aero Corporation.

The Saab JAS-39 Gripen caters to countries looking for affordable, yet lethal warplanes. 

It is a fourth-generation fighter that was originally developed in the 1980s to serve as a relatively cheaper, easy-to-maintain aircraft capable of fighting off any potential assailant. The Gripen project is the biggest industrial venture in the history of the Nordic country.

Gripen E
A Gripen-E flying with 4xMeteor missile, 2 IRIS-T missiles. (Image: Saab)

This multipurpose fighter has been used extensively by the Air Force of Sweden and other nations. Contrary to common conception, a lot of the Gripen’s technologies (like its engine) were in fact outsourced to keep costs down.

Over time, the original A and B iterations of the Gripen made way for the much-improved C and D model aircraft.

The E/F variant adds greater range and payload capability and has much more advanced avionics. It features the new British-built Selex Raven ES-05 active electronically scanned array radar as a replacement for the older, mechanically-scanned PS-05/A. The Gripen also comes with compendious networking capabilities. 

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The JAS-39E Variant

The JAS-39E variant is a bulked-up version of the Gripen and comes equipped with the more powerful General Electric F414 engine. The redesigned fuselage allows for 40% more fuel capacity.

It accommodates additional weapon pylons as well. The company seems to have put a significant focus on data fusion with incoming information from the active, electronically scanned array (AESA) radar, electronic warfare systems, infrared search and track, and more advanced data links.

They provide great situational awareness to the single pilot flying the jet.

JAS 39 Gripen
A Swedish Air Force JAS 39 Gripen. (Wikipedia)

Gripen E has achieved complete NATO interoperability and is specifically made for the future Network Centric Warfare (NCW) environment. 

In terms of munitions, the warplane assures air-to-air superiority with METEOR, AMRAAM, IRIS-T, AIM-9 missile capabilities. Meanwhile, the latest generation of precision weapons and targeting sensors ensure a superior air-to-surface capability. 

Saab Gripens – The Big Drawback 

Although the Gripen-E is very appealing in terms of its advanced electronic warfare capability, integration of strong missiles, reduced-radar cross-section, and low operating cost, the jet still seems to be losing out to its competitors on two rather important fronts – political clout and economic backing.

The competitors of Gripen — Dassault Rafale, Lockheed Martin F-35 JSF, and Eurofighter Typhoon — come with the diplomatic backing of France, the US, and several European countries, respectively.

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The strengthening of diplomatic ties through military deals with these countries, most of whom hold significant positions at international forums such as the United Nations Security Council, European Union, North-Atlantic Treaty Organisation, etc. is beneficial to customer nations.

A Thai Royal Air Force Saab Gripen. (via Gripen News)

Having such political support behind an aircraft also enhances its perception, making it the more desirable option for procurement.

For instance, Italian military aviation blogger David Cenicotti says, “The Eurofighter is a younger technology, believed to be cheaper and has more political clout because it is built by four European countries.”

Indeed, being able to associate militarily and economically via an aircraft tender with not one or two, but four European powerhouse countries — the UK, Germany, Italy, and Spain — is likely to be a better deal in the long run, even if the aircraft acquisition itself is slightly costlier compared to other options such as the Gripen.

Eurofighter - Defence - Airbus
Eurofighter – Defence – Airbus

Engaging in multi-billion dollar deals with powerful countries could potentially lead to the buyer nation becoming an official ally of the government. This could open channels to further collaborate in defense and other vital sectors. 

The Saab Gripen-E has even been on the receiving end of the brunt of Britain’s politico-economic power in recent years. Saab was forced to let go of the opportunity to provide the Gripen-E aircraft to Argentina since Britain imposed an embargo on the export of British components used in the aircraft.

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Sweden also lacks the economic capability to support the Gripen’s tender bids. When Ukraine announced its plans to spend up to a whopping $7.5 billion to reinvent its Air Force in May last year, France pitched its Rafale fighter and showed a willingness to provide the financial backing to make the deal happen.

Paris was willing to guarantee up to 85% of a loan to Kyiv to pay for procuring the Rafales.

This kind of advantage that gives an extra edge to the offers made by countries such as France and the US, is something that Sweden currently doesn’t have.