Warplanes: Why Gripen Beats The Big Boys


December 7, 2011: Switzerland has decided to buy 22 Swedish JAS-39 Gripen [PHOTO] fighters to replace their elderly F-5s. The 14 ton JAS-39 is roughly comparable with the latest versions of the F-16. It is also used by Sweden, Thailand, South Africa, Hungary, and the Czech Republic.

Often regarded as an also-ran in the current crop of "modern jet fighters," the Swedish Gripen is proving to be more competition than the major players (the F-16, F-18, F-35, Eurofighter, Rafale, MiG-29, and Su-27) expected. Put simply, Gripen does a lot of little but important things right and costs about half as much (at about $35 million each) as its major competitors. In effect, Gripen provides the ruggedness and low cost of Russian aircraft with the high quality and reliability of Western aircraft. For many nations this is an appealing combination. The Gripen is easy to use (both for pilots and ground crews) and capable of doing all jet fighter jobs (air defense, ground support, and reconnaissance) well enough.

The Gripen is small but can carry up to 3.6 tons of weapons. With the increasing use of smart bombs, this is adequate. The aircraft entered active service in 1997 and has had an uphill battle getting export sales. Sweden does not have the diplomatic clout of its major competitors, so they have to push quality and service. Swedish warplanes and products in general have an excellent reputation in both categories. Nevertheless, the Gripen is still expected to lose out on a lot of sales simply because politics took precedence over performance.

Switzerland needs Gripen to replace its much larger fleet of F-5s. Once a major user (with over a hundred F-5s) Switzerland has found many customers for its well cared for fleet of used but still capable F-5s.

The F-5 is another Cold War relic that still manages to find work. Over 2,200 were built between the late 1950s and 1987. Now there's a lot being invested in rebuilding the several hundred still in service. The F-5 is a 12 ton fighter roughly similar to the 1950s era MiG-21 and is a contemporary of that Russian fighter. The F-5 was built mainly for export to nations that could not afford the top-line Western fighters but did not want the MiG-21s. The F-5 is normally armed with two 20mm cannon, and three tons of missiles and bombs.

Switzerland will begin receiving its Gripens in 2015 and should have all of them by 2018.




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