- The Saab JAS 39 Gripen fighter jet has earned high marks for its capabilities and affordability.
- But buyers have often passed on the Gripen in favor of other jets, including the US-made F-35.
- The Gripen’s mix of capabilities make it “by far the most suitable” for Ukraine, three experts say.
As Russia’s beleaguered air force continues to launch attacks in Ukraine, Kyiv finds itself in need of air assets, including new fighter aircraft.
The best jet for Ukraine is the Gripen, a 4.5th-generation multirole fighter jet built by Sweden’s Saab and which is “by far the most suitable candidate in terms of operational requirements,” according to Justin Bronk, Nick Reynolds, and Jack Watling of the Royal United Services Institute, a British think tank.
Ukraine needs a fighter with missiles that offer “the greatest possible effective range under low-altitude, subsonic launch conditions” in order to bypass Russian air defenses, including its S-400 missile system, which can target Ukrainian jets at higher altitudes, the three experts said in a recent report.
The Gripen can carry the Meteor air-to-air missile, which is effective in those conditions thanks to its ramjet design and has a 100 km range, allowing it to be fired from safer distances. The jet can also be outfitted with anti-ship missiles.
The Gripen has a suite of electronic-warfare capabilities specifically designed to reduce the effectiveness of the radars used by Russia’s jets and surface-to-air-missile systems.
Additionally, as Ukrainian airstrips and airbases remain under threat from Russian long-range missiles, Kyiv needs a jet that can operate from shorter, more rudimentary airstrips and from basic airbases with smaller ground crews in order to minimize the risk of the jets being detected and destroyed on the ground.
The Gripen was “designed from the outset for ease of maintenance” and for operating from secondary or improvised airfields, according to the report, which noted that the Gripen can be refueled, “re-armed and given basic maintenance by teams of just six ground crew using two vehicles on small airbases or highways in cold weather.”
Only one member of that crew needs to be highly trained, which would ease the strain on Ukraine’s already overstretched air force, while most US fighter jets require extensive ground support equipment, which “would be difficult to build without being observed and hit” by Russian strikes, the report adds.
The Gripen’s operational cost — including fuel, repairs and maintenance, and personnel — is also lower than that of the US-made F-16, F-18E/F, and F-35; the French-built Rafale; and the European-designed Eurofighter, according to a paper produced for a study commissioned by Saab.
An underdog in limited supply
Saab’s JAS 39 Gripen was designed largely with Russia in mind. The 4.5th-generation jet can reach Mach 2 and can supercruise, maintaining supersonic speeds without relying on an afterburner.
Although the jet has never seen combat, it has performed very well in exercises against 4th-generation aircraft that are on par with Russia’s jets.
Nevertheless, it has not been adopted by many countries. Besides Sweden — which uses only the Gripen — the jet’s main operators are South Africa, Brazil, and Thailand. Other countries, including India and Indonesia, are also considering the jet.
The jet’s nemesis seems to be Lockheed Martin’s F-35, a fifth-generation fighter. Saab’s Gripen is not as advanced as the F-35, as it lacks stealth and other capabilities, but the firm’s CEO has said that the US’s geopolitical clout also creates an uneven playing field when it comes to international fighter-jet competition.
The Gripen has lost bids to the F-35 in Denmark, Norway, Finland — all neighbors of Sweden — and Poland. It has also lost a number of bids to Lockheed’s F-16, a fourth-generation fighter that is widely used around the world.
Despite the failed bids, the Swedish jet is well regarded by aviation experts for being highly capable, relatively easy to use, and inexpensive.
The Russian air force’s failure to achieve air dominance in Ukraine has made it more cautious, focusing on long-range missile attacks and mostly keeping its aircraft over friendly territory.
Therefore, “a few modern Western fighters with long-range missiles able to meet the Russians on technically equal or even superior terms would likely have a disproportionate deterrent effect,” the RUSI report says.
Kyiv has shown interest in the Swedish fighter. In an interview in October, Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov said he was “sure” that acquiring “fighter jets like F-16s, F-15s, or Gripen from Sweden will also be possible” in the future.
Stockholm is also increasing its support for Kyiv. It recently announced a military aid package worth $287 million, its largest to date, that includes air-defense systems.
Yet finding Gripens for Ukraine may not be easy. Producing new jets takes years, meaning any sent to Kyiv will likely have to come from Sweden’s own fleet or from those of other countries.
The only NATO members that operate the jet are the Czech Republic and Hungary, the latter of which maintains good relations with Russia.
Constantine Atlamazoglou works on transatlantic and European security. He holds a master’s degree in security studies and European affairs from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. You can contact him on LinkedIn.