Procurement: Sweden Sticks It To Russia

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October 26, 2007: The Thai purchase of the Swedish JAS-39 ("Gripen") is a loss for the Russians in the international export market. In one sense, Thailand was sticking with the type of plane that it has usually purchased. In another sense, this is a sale that Russia may have lost in the aftermath of the Israeli raid on Syria. It is also a loss for the United States, which now will face a tougher competition for future purchases from Thailand.

The Gripen is a small late-4th generation fighter, equipped with a single F404 engine (the same used on the F/A-18 Hornet), and has a top speed of over 2,000 kilometers an hour, a combat radius of 800 kilometers and can carry several tons of bombs or missiles. It is about the same size as the F-5Es that Thailand will be retiring. It's best comparison is not to the F-16, although it is similar – but to the abortive U.S. F-20. The Gripen has already picked up export orders from the Czech Republic, South Africa, and Hungary. It is also a contender for contracts from Romania, India, and Croatia.

So why is this little fighter doing well in the export market? One reason is the fact that it is relatively cheap - $45 million for the latest planes. Some F-16 variants are cheaper ($30 million per plane), but with the Gripen one gets an aircraft that is newer (the F-16 entered service in 1978), can operate from runways less than a kilometer long, and which provides much more flexibility than planes like the F-5 and the MiG-21. For Thailand, the F-16 has been the high end of their "high-low" mix.

One loser with these sales is Russia. The Su-30 had been considered for Thailand, but in the wake of the 2006 Thai coup, that deal was scrapped in favor of the Gripen. The recent raid in Syria by Israeli planes, which got through despite the sale of systems like the SA-15 (Tor-M1), probably didn't help Sukhoi's chances any.

Is this sale significant? The F-20 was a plane that did much of what the Gripen could do, and was on the market ten years earlier. In a big sense, it is a loss for the United States – Sweden's Gripen is filling the gap that was left when the United States decided not to give the F-20 a chance, and let the program die. The U.S. also lost because the Thai coup took the F-16 out of competition. – Harold C. Hutchison (haroldc.hutchison@gmail.com)

 


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