Warplanes: Gripen Abides


November 13, 2014: Sweden recently announced another export customer for its JAS 39E Gripen jet fighter. This time it was Brazil, which ordered 36 aircraft. This is the largest export order so far. Most of the other five export customers received only 14 aircraft, and often on lease, not purchase. Brazil is buying the Gripens for $150 million each (including spares, training and support). The Brazil sale might still be cancelled, but that appears unlikely. Some Brazilian pilots are already on their way to Sweden for training. Since the JAS 39E won’t enter service until 2018, Brazil will lease eight JAS 39Cs for training.

One recent (2013) sale of 22 Gripens was subsequently cancelled. This was a real disappointment because that sale came after a very contentious and expensive competition involving the Gripen, the French Rafale, and the Anglo-German (mainly) Eurofighter. Most of the secret evaluations of the three fighters were leaked to the media and provided some interesting insights on all three aircraft. The Gripen won the competition not because it was the best fighter but because it was OK on all counts and it was the cheapest. The fact that Sweden is, like Switzerland, a long-time neutral in European politics also apparently helped. But the sale was contentious in Switzerland, with many Swiss feeling that they did not need such a high performance aircraft. In early 2014 the issue was put to a national vote and 54 percent rejected the purchase. But the Swedes, and many other potential buyers, did get the evaluation data.

The evaluations found the Rafale to be the best combat aircraft. Actually, all three met the basic requirements set by the Swiss. The Gripen only excelled in initial and long-term (life cycle) costs (as the least expensive aircraft). The Eurofighter was the most expensive and time consuming to maintain. What particularly impressed the Swiss about the Rafale was how well all the active and passive sensors were integrated to give the pilot a very complete and real-time picture of what was out there. The Rafale and Eurofighter both had two engines, and that provided an edge over the single engine Gripen. But Switzerland is not a large country and a single engine aircraft has sufficient range to do what needs to be done. Moreover, the smaller Gripen was more suited to existing Swiss airfields and aircraft facilities, which were based on an older generation of aircraft that are more the size of Gripen than the larger Rafale and Eurofighter. Many countries, like Brazil, use the same criteria as Switzerland. The Brazilian competition went on for six years and the Gripen eventually won for the same reasons they won the Swiss sale.

The Swedes have always had to scramble to sell the Gripen in the face of intense competition from new and used American (especially used F-16s), Russian, and European jet fighters. EADS, the manufacturer of the Eurofighter, threatened to upset the Swiss Gripen deal by offering 22 second hand Eurofighters for half of what the new JAS 39Es cost. This sort of thing is possible because several nations are cancelling orders for Eurofighters, an aircraft designed at the end of the Cold War. With the Soviet Union gone, orders for Eurofighters were cut and continue to be cut. This has created a market for used Eurofighters, which compete with used F-16s. While the new Gripen was more suitable to Swiss needs, a 50 percent discount was very attractive. The Swedes had to sweeten their deal to handle the threat of second-hand Eurofighters.

Formerly known as the Gripen NG (Next Generation) fighters, the JAS 39E is heavier (17 tons) than the existing 39C, has better electronics, a heavier payload (over four tons), and has a two seater version better able to handle ground attack and electronic warfare duties. The Swedish Air Force already has 134 JAS 39Cs in service, and the prospect of more defense budget cuts made the purchase of 60 Gripen NGs (at a total cost of nearly $5 billion) seemingly impossible. But the JAS 39E excited several export customers and that made all the difference.

Sweden is describing the 39E as a "new aircraft" compared to the earlier JAS 39 models. There's some truth to that, as the 39E is a little longer and heavier but still looks like a Gripen. The 39E is full of more expensive, and capable, electronics, but that's not obvious by just looking at the new model. The first 39E is expected to enter service in 2018.

The Gripen has already provided one major upgrade for the JAS 39C model. Improvements included inflight refueling, better electronics, and improved ground attack capability. The C model was also compliant with NATO standards for warplanes. This was necessary for export sales. There was also a two seat D model for training.

The 14 ton JAS-39C is roughly comparable to the latest versions of the F-16. The Gripen is small but can carry up to 3.6 tons of weapons. With the increasing use of smart bombs, this is adequate. 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. More importantly, Gripen also costs about half as much, per flight hour, to operate. 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 JAS 39 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 some sales simply because politics took precedence over performance.



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