The Gripen is ready for action

By June 1996 No. 7 Wing at Såtenäs had become the first Swedish unit to be operational with the JAS 39 Gripen. 14 years had passed since the final decision to begin its development, in 1982. In comparison with the development of previous aircraft this may seem to be a long time, but in fact it is no longer than for other equivalent aircraft projects. The increase in time was partly due to the greater expense and increased technical complication involved in developing modern combat aircraft. The other reason was the attempt to discover all the possible faults and deficiencies during flight testing.

During the decades of the 1950s and 1960s there was great pressure to bring out new and more advanced aircraft that would be superior to other possible adversaries. The desire was to get them into production and out in service as soon as possible. Possible deficiencies that had been missed could be corrected afterwards. The need to quickly get the latest and most technically advanced aircraft into service was a prime factor. However the fact that technical developments led to ever more complicated systems meant that there was less opportunity for taking short cuts.

Cutbacks and a strategic time-out

After the accident over Stockholm, the Gripen had an uphill battle in respect of regaining public confidence. In addition, much had happened in the rest of the world between 1982 and 1993. In 1982 the Cold War had entered a new ice-cold phase and there was nothing to indicate that the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact would 11 years later cease to exist. The way to what Swedish military circles would call “The strategic time-out” during which all parts of the Swedish Defence Forces would radically shrink had already begun.

No. 7 Wing at Såtenäs was not originally supposed to be the first unit to be equipped with the Gripen, but the other intended units had been disbanded, one after the other. The Swedish Air Force, which had for a long time enjoyed relative priority had now suffered the cuts that the Swedish Army had for a long time been a victim. The aim was an Air Force with about 100 active aircraft. Including the third batch of Gripens, the Swedish State had purchased 204 individuals. But before even batch 2 had been delivered the more modern C and D versions had appeared. Anyway, the Air Force had acquired more aircraft than there was room for within its organisation.

At the same time as these deliveries to the Swedish Air Force were taking place, Saab was trying to find buyers for the Gripen in other countries. It was hoped that Finland would buy the Gripen, but in the end they purchased to American F18 Hornet. There was a political dimension to this affair that was unavoidable. After the dissolution of the Soviet Empire, Finland finally had the possibility to establish new contacts in the West. In addition, the USA could deliver a completely finished product that was already proven in combat. Through the years, Saab would time after time find itself outmanoeuvred by American alternatives. This was despite the fact that that this time international experts considered the Gripen to be an excellent alternative. Not least, the Gripen was more economical to operate than many of its competitors. In addition it was easier to service for ground personnel and could be prepared for new missions in a shorter time than most other aircraft. However, when it comes to purchasing combat aircraft, it is such big business that the political dimension must be taken into account.

Stealth technology and American dominance

Norway and Denmark chose to join the new American project, the Joint Strike Fighter that led to the Lockheed F-35. This had one aspect of technical development that had not been considered in 1982, namely stealth technology. This is rather a wide-ranging idea, and it can be said that the Gripen has it to some extent. The most popular idea of “Stealth” is that the aircraft is built in such a way that radar waves are not reflected back in the direction from which they came, and thus the aircraft presents a smaller radar signal than would otherwise be the case. But the concept also covers other techniques in order to reduce heat emissions, thus making it more difficult for heat-seeking missiles to home in on the source. The USA has invested a great deal in stealth technology. During the Kuwait war in 1991 the first operation stealth aircraft, the Lockheed F-117 found fame.

The Lockheed F-117 was the first operational stealth aircraft. Photograph US Air Force

The F-117 was a subsonic aircraft designed for attack missions. It carried out several successful missions against Iraqi forces without loss and gained the reputation of being virtually invisible and thus impossible to hit by either anti-aircraft fire or enemy fighters. However the F-117 was also subsonic and even though enemy fighters would have a hard time using their target-seeking missiles, the stealth format could not provide protection against automatic cannons. It is said that a Swedish pilot in reply to a question concerning the F-117 and its abilities, said “We could shoot it down with a J29 Flying Barrel!” Whether this tale is true or not, stealth capabilities do not mean that the aircraft is invincible in any way. The F-117 was however only the start. The USA would soon launch its F-22 Raptor, a fighter aircraft mainly intended to take control and establish air supremacy. We have now come a step further with the F-35.

These futuristic American aircraft caused many to now believe that more traditional aircraft such as the Gripen, Rafale, Eurofighter Typhoon and the Russian Su-27 were hopelessly outmoded. Was it even worth investing in conventional aircraft now? But quality is expensive. The USA retained and modernised its F-16 Fighting Falcon and F-15 Eagle that still today are seen as very capable combat aircraft. The breakthrough of stealth technology has also led to research starting the world over into antidotes and even into finding out how tactically to handle stealth aircraft opposition. Apart from this, Sweden also had been conducting its own research into stealth technology, which led to the Visby class corvettes and was thus groundbreaking in the maritime arena. Sweden has had a long and proud tradition within the field of radar. Research and development within this area was surrounded by intense security and it is difficult to get an insight into how far development has progressed. Most of it is based on hearsay, where someone has heard something from someone else, and so on. But it can definitely be said that the ability to detect stealthy warships is something that has been studied for longer than anyone can imagine.

The Visby class corvette HMS Nyköping moored. Sweden’s contribution to stealth technology in the maritime area has been with these Visby class corvettes as flagships.

It is not possible with hindsight to redesign a “normal” aircraft to become a stealthy version of the American type. The whole must be done from the ground up. This is probably why China in recent years has been the only nation to bring out and put into service its own stealth aircraft. Development in the field of aviation takes time, and it shows the difficult decisions that must be made, with engineers literally needing to look into a crystal ball to see what in future will be forthcoming technical advances. Everything must be prioritised and weighed against one’s own needs. Sweden for example does not need an aircraft capable of forcing its way deep into the airspace of an aggressor. What she does need is an aircraft that can perform all the principal tasks in the best possible way, i.e. a multi-role aircraft. So and aircraft like the F-117 would not be interesting. The same also applies to the F-22 Raptor, which was specifically designed as an air superiority aircraft with the only job of destroying enemy aircraft. An F-22 cannot do the same job as an F-117, and vice versa. Not until the F-35 came along that a stealth aircraft could be said to have been developed to do what the Gripen is capable of, namely performing every type of mission just by changing its on-board equipment and armament.

It also became apparent that even though they may be hard to find, stealth aircraft certainly aren’t invisible. During the NATO involvement in the conflict in the former Yugoslavia, a Serbian anti-aircraft unit managed to shoot down an F-117 by means of an older version of surface-to-air missile. It wasn’t easy, but because the Serbs had discovered that the American aircraft flew the same pattern and used the same entry route time after time, they learned to identify the weak radar echoes from the F-117 that would otherwise have been dismissed as interference from birds or equipment problems. Their missiles were not steered by radar but fired towards a point where the operators had calculated where the aircraft should be located. Nevertheless the loss of an F-117 showed that even stealth aircraft could actually be detected and brought down.

Export and leasing attempts

Giving stealth technology its due, but the principal competition facing the Gripen from America came from the same aircraft that were in the forefront as possible foreign alternatives to an indigenous fighter aircraft, namely the F-16 and F-18. Both of these were sold all over the world and had combat records. In addition they were often accompanied by offers of other American defence technology and also relatively generous purchase prices. It was difficult for Saab to match this, and in addition the JAS 39 A and B were not adapted to the NATO battle management system, nor could they be air-to-air refuelled. What Saab could however offer was that over time the Gripen would among other things have better operating costs and ease of field maintenance. But although Sweden was participating to an ever greater degree as a partner in NATO, there was also growing an internal need to be able to work effectively with NATO units. Hence the new C and D models were compatible with and could operate integrally with NATO units and also refuel in the air.

At that time the only country that Saab could succeed in selling newly manufactured aircraft to was South Africa. In 1999 South Africa ordered 28 JAS 39 Gripens, with delivery scheduled to start in 2008. Later this order was reduced to 26 aircraft. In this connection the Aeroseum and its home, the Nya Berget (the New Mountain) became involved. Before delivery the new aircraft were to be equipped in accordance with the requirements of South Africa, using equipment that would be unique to these aircraft. This had to done in secret and as much out of sight as possible. Therefore, inside the concrete and steel doors of the Nya Berget was carried out perhaps the last and most secret operation in the history of the Mountain.

Now it was Sweden too that had ordered more Gripens than the modern Air Force was considered to need; almost twice as many. This meant however that a further possibility arose, namely to lease or rent out aircraft, allowing an excess of aircraft to be reassigned. At the start of the 21st Century Hungary and the Czech Republic hired NATO-adapted C and D aircraft versions, and their contracts have been repeatedly renewed, so that today Czech Air Force Gripens have operated as part of NATO air space monitoring, both over the Baltic Sea and around Iceland.

Another deal was done when Thailand in 2007 purchased 6 existing JAS 39 C and then in 2009 ordered a further 6 aircraft. Thus a total of 12 aircraft are now operational in the Thai Air Force, and there are plans to possibly buy a further 6. In addition, Saab in 2012 donated a JAS 39 A to Thailand’s Air Force Museum in connection with the 100th anniversary of the Thai Air Force.

When the three last aircraft of the 12 that had been ordered were to be delivered in 2013 they were flown direct to Thailand. In order to save time and fuel they chose to fly through a storm, and all three aircraft were struck by lightning. However after an intermediate landing and a thorough inspection, all three could continue to their Thailand destination.

In this connection it can be interesting to note that The Thai Air Force Gripen aircraft measured up against the Chinese Air Force during an international air exercise in 2015 in which the two Air Forces participated. The Thai Gripens were up against China’s new J-11 fighter, which had flown for the first time in 1998 and was a Chinese further development of the Russian Su-27 fighter.

By the end of the exercise the Thai Gripens had been awarded 42 “kills” of Chinese aircraft against “losses” of 34 Gripens. This may not sound too exceptional, but it is relevant that the Chinese successes were greatest in the first two days when the aircraft were tested exclusively at close quarters and the Chinese aircraft had a manoeuvrability advantage. But modern air fighting usually takes place at a distance, and the Gripen aircraft proved to be superior when the exercises commenced further away.

It is not easy to practice in a 100% realistic way, but it is worth noting that in order to get to close quarters an aircraft must survive an attack by radar-guided missiles from far away. Also if one side thereby loses more aircraft, it risks being numerically inferior once battle is joined in close combat. Better manoeuvrability does not help if the opposing aircraft gets help from a comrade that in turn also attacks you.

Swedish Gripen aircraft have also successfully taken part in international aircraft exercises in the USA and there shown their mettle against technically advanced opponents.

Swedish Gripens participated in the establishment of a no-fly zone over Libya in connection with the revolution against Colonel Gaddafi’s regime. In the end, it was decided that the Gripen aircraft should not perform attack missions, although reconnaissance could be carried out. The Gripen showed itself to be an excellent reconnaissance platform and, most important of all, demonstrated that it could be quickly readied for a new mission.

Pros and cons

Any aircraft is always a compromise between different characteristics, and what one chooses to emphasise. The Gripen has one deficiency in comparison with its international competitors such as the Su-27, F-35, Eurofighter Typhoon and Rafale in being smaller and therefore unable to carry as heavy a weapon load. After all, having more missiles to fire against the enemy is always advantageous. On the other hand, the Gripen today has the latest modern infra-red missile called the IRIS-T, or Robot 98 as it is called in Sweden, which is far more capable than the venerable AIM-9 Sidewinder. Also the Swedish Gripen aircraft became the first fighters to be equipped with the Meteor, the very latest European beyond visual range radar-guided missile, which many consider to be the most effective missile of its type in the world.

Another disadvantage of the Gripen that is often highlighted is that it does not have built-in stealth characteristics. However there are still very few competitors that actually have this, so far. But even although Saab did not design the Gripen to be a stealth aircraft, it was designed to take into account the ability to be able to continuously upgrade its electronics, avionics and even computer systems and software. Also today’s Gripens are equipped with an active countermeasures system to jam enemy radar and make the aircraft less “visible”. Here even the Gripen’s smaller size is also an advantage. A smaller aircraft generates a smaller echo than a large one, and seen from the front the Gripen is therefore a little more “stealthy”. Add to this the Gripen’s electronic defences and the total effect can be similar to that of a larger aircraft designed to be a stealthy airframe. The Gripen’s electronic countermeasures can also be continually improved and upgraded in order to face up against new technology and new threats.

The ability to upgrade and modify the Gripen in order to meet new threats has been an important part of its development. The JAS needed to be competitive for decades and thus it has been important to keep pace with technology.

A Eurofighter Typhoon and a Russian Sukhoi Su-27 meet over the Baltic Sea in 2014. Photograph: Royal Air Force

The Gripen NG and the Russian Easter

At the beginning of the 21st Century, just as the JAS 39A began to be phased out, Saab started to look at a new version. The Gripen NG (Next Generation) turned out to be a somewhat larger aircraft. It was definitely still a Gripen, but larger than its predecessor. The fuselage was expanded, to house a new engine. This new aircraft would have a longer range, carry a heavier load and offer more weapon hardpoints, meaning that for fighter missions more missiles could be loaded. The Russian Su-27 and its derivatives could carry between 8 and 10 air-to-air missiles, while the C and D Gripen versions could carry six.

In addition the aircraft is equipped with a new type of radar, new encrypted communications equipment, undercarriage and a modernised cockpit.

To start with it was a question of Sweden buying 40-60 aircraft and for a while Switzerland joined in as a future partner. However Switzerland backed out, to leave Sweden alone again. Would Sweden really invest in a new combat aircraft?

Decades of cuts and savings ended in 2014 when the Swedish Defence Forces put the brakes on and backtracked. That was the year when Russia surprisingly annexed the Crimean peninsula and war began in the east of Ukraine. But already, the year before there took place an incident that even prompted part of the Swedish general public to question whether the cuts had gone much too far. Russia carried out a major exercise called Ladoga-13. Within the framework of this exercise, on March 29th 2013 two heavily laden Tu-22M supersonic bombers took off, with an escort of four Su-27 fighters. They set off in attack formation across the Baltic Sea aiming for Sweden. Their route would have taken them across southern Sweden if they had continued. Their intention probably was to practice an attack on southern Sweden with Swedish air bases in Småland as targets. Just before these aircraft reached Swedish air space off Gotska Sandön they turned round and went back east.

During the Cold War Swedish fighter aircraft in their quick reaction role would have intercepted the Russian aircraft over the Baltic. But by Easter 2013 quick reaction preparedness was only operating during “office hours”. Instead it fell to two Danish F-16s of the NATO Baltic guard force to take off, but they could not arrive on the scene before the Russians turned back.

Even though many people had followed events under Putin with trepidation, probably most Swedes were shocked by this event. The fact that Russia had so overtly practised an attack on Sweden was something that had not taken place since the end of the Cold War. One thing that made the whole event so staggering was that many could not understand why. The military practices all the time, but seldom in such a way that could be interpreted as really training to attack a neighbour. When something like this happens, in nearly every case it is regarded as a political signal to the rest of the world and to the target in particular. A radical example is North Korea firing missiles towards Japan, and at least once over Japan to land in the Pacific Ocean. This was a rather obvious way of saying “It is no problem for us to shoot far enough to hit the Japanese home islands!”

The other thing that surprised many was that Swedish aircraft were unable to intervene. Discussions on the strength and economic state of the Swedish Defence Forces became for the first time in years to become a hot topic. A direct result was that incident readiness round the clock was reintroduced and talk about rebuilding Swedish defences began to take place. Annexation of the Crimea by Russian forces in 2014 confirmed the fears that Putin was prepared to use military means to achieve his political aims. That picture has since then been confirmed by his invasion of Ukraine in 2022.

Apart from the process of equipping the Gripen with new weapons (such as the previously mentioned IRIS-T and Meteor missiles), the Air Force started to become more visible. Naturally it is not everyone who appreciates the sound or presence of combat aircraft, but at the same time it is a way of demonstrating to the general public and the outside world that Sweden would be able to defend herself from an attack. Certainly mention continues to be made of the two dramatic crashes, but the overall image of the JAS 39 Gripen has become more qualified and positive. For example when a huge forest fire occurred at the military firing range Trängslet in the county of Dalarna and threatened to spread further, an unusual method of fighting the fire was tried out. A Gripen dropped a live bomb at the centre of the fire which managed to put out part of the fire and made it easier for the fire service, Home Guard and volunteers to put out the rest. The whole exercise was an experiment that was only possible because the fire was burning in an area where it was relatively safe to drop live bombs while being a dangerous area to move around in due to the risks posed by unexploded armaments from previous military exercises. This was probably the first time that a fire had been fought with the aid of an aerial bombardment.

Certainly Switzerland back out of a business transaction concerning the Gripen Next Generation, but instead a new partner appeared, namely Brazil. The Brazilian aircraft manufacturer Embraer became a partner and even proposed to build the Gripen in Brazil. The new aircraft would be designated the Gripen E and F. E would be the single-seat version and F the two-seat trainer.

On November 24th 2021 Saab reported that the first six JAS 39 Gripen E were ready for delivery to the Swedish and Brazilian Air Forces. A new chapter had therefore commenced in the Gripen’s long history. One thing is certain, and that is the Gripen, even in the future, will continue to be an outsider that can successfully challenge the modern combat aviation industry giants. The question now is what will come next. That remains to be seen.