June 12, 2016:
Botswana, one of the best run nations in Africa, is spending billions to upgrade its armed forces. This includes ordering eight Swedish Gripen JAS 39C jet fighters. Normally this would cost about half a billion dollars (including maintenance facilities, training and tech support). But these are second-hand fighters and Sweden has demonstrated a willingness to be very flexible on price, including leasing these fighters rather than outright sale. Under the best circumstances (a thrifty lease deal) the Gripens would consume 10-20 percent of the defense budget. This is a heavy burden for a landlocked nation with a GDP of $16 billion and a population of 2.2 million. The armed forces are tiny (9,000 troops) and annual defense spending is about $500 million. The air force has about 600 personnel and the only combat aircraft are ten Cold War era F-5 jet fighters. It is believed that only four or five of these are still serviceable. Neighboring South Africa bought 28 Gripens in 1999 and the two countries could save money by sharing maintenance costs. Still, the Gripen is expensive to operate (about $14,000 per flight hour). Discussions on buying Gripens have been going on for some time.
The 14 ton JAS-39C entered service in 1997 and is roughly comparable to the late model F-16s. 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.