The Gripen E is a worthy — and affordable — fighter plane, but manufacturer Saab has struggled to find customers
by JOSEPH TREVITHICK
Saab has unveiled the latest version of its high-tech Gripen fighter jet. But despite being on par with its competitors — and even better in many respects — the new E version will have to overcome serious political and economic disadvantages to win sales.
On May 18, the Swedish defense contractor debuted the updated jet during a flashy press conference at its factory in Linköping, where it assembles the planes. The company stated it already has contracts with the Swedish and Brazilian air forces for nearly 100 aircraft.
“Let’s be clear about what Saab is announcing here today,” the firm’s head of aeronautics Ulf Nilsson triumphantly stated near the beginning of his remarks. “We are changing the way air forces will think, fly and fight for decades to come.”
Claiming that the Gripen E’s effects will be felt “for centuries to come,” Nilsson detailed the improvements to Saab’s now nearly 30-year-old design. Compared to earlier versions, the Gripen E can fly faster and farther, carrying more fuel and weapons and is jam packed with advanced gear.
Powered by a single American-made General Electric F414G engine, the fighter can supercruise for an extended period of time at twice the speed of sound. Nearly 50 feet long, it can fly more than 52,000 feet high … if necessary. With forward-mounted miniature “canard” wings and an advanced flight computer, Gripen is highly maneuverable in a dogfight and when dodging anti-aircraft missiles launched from the ground.
The jet’s powerful Italian-built ES-05 Raven radar is an active, electronically-scanned type. Unlike older sensors, the Raven features dozens of small antennas to quickly find and track multiple target at once.
To help fight stealthy opponents, the Gripen E has a built-in heat-seeking sensor. The long range camera can pick up hot spots from stealthier planes that might be hard to find on the radar screen. Under the right conditions, the gear can also detect aircraft, helicopters, warships and vehicles on the ground.
The new aircraft have advanced electronic countermeasures, along with flares, to ward off hostile jets and surface-to-air missiles.
Described as a “smart fighter,” high-tech radios and data links funnel vital information to and from the cockpit. Like apps on a smartphone, Saab claims the software and hardware can be quickly swapped out to meet customers’ particular needs.
Once pilots finds their targets with the on-board systems, they can choose from an array of weapons loaded onto 10 hardpoints on the wings and fuselage. Saab touts its ability to configure the Gripen E for various missiles, bombs, targeting and spy pods and other payloads from around the world.
At the May presser, the Gripen displayed on stage carried long- and short-range air-to-air missiles, including five MBDA Meteors. The European manufacturer used Saab’s jet as the main test platform for the weapon, which it claims flies more than four times the speed of sound and can hit targets nearly 190 miles away.
For ground targets, Saab showed off the plane carrying eight GPS-guided Small Diameter Bombs. Inside, the plane wields a German-made 27-millimeter cannon.
“In this business, we’re used to hearing a lot of words being thrown around, and big claims being made for small steps, or even when no progress has been made at all,” Nilsson said at the beginning of his presentation, a not-so-subtle dig at Lockheed’s F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. “This [the Gripen E] is the only fighter program on time and on budget,” he added later.
With these specifications, the Gripen E presents an alternative to Western designs like the latest versions of the American F-16 and F-18, the French Rafale and the Anglo-German-Italian Eurofighter. It’s definitely cheaper up front and to fly than Lockheed’s much-delayed F-35 — and more importantly it’s available now.
The fighter presents a realistic counter to modern designs like the Russian Su-27 family and China’s J-11 clones, according to Saab. Nilsson said that decades facing off against “one of the most advanced opponents” — a clear reference to the Kremlin’s military — had factored into the Gripen E’s overall design.
The Gripen is “real, it’s ready, it’s the future,” he declared.
Unfortunately, Nilsson’s confidence can’t get rid of the real and significant hurdles the Gripen E will face on the open market. And after more than half-century of building warplanes, Saab is well aware of these issues.
During the 1960s, the Swedish firm achieved moderate success with sales of its Draken fighter jet to Austria, Denmark and Finland. In the 1970s, Saab found no takers for its newer Viggen. Draken operators all eventually replaced the planes with F-16s and F-18s.
Since its first flight in 1988, the Gripen has competed with many of the same types. The Czech Republic, Hungary, South Africa and Thailand all picked Gripens for their air forces. But Saab has failed to win just as many contracts.
Most notably, India chose to go with France’s Rafale instead of the Gripen in 2011, despite the Swedish company’s plan to partner with domestic industry giant Tata Group.
In each of these cases, the biggest problems for the Gripen have nothing to with the jet’s capabilities or even cost. The underlying issues have to do with broader political and economic realities. As noted, Gripen is full of foreign technology.
In many cases, this requires those countries to sign off on any final deal. Not only that, a U.S.-made engine is at the very core of the Gripen’s design. The United States has been historically reticent to effectively help foreign companies compete with American defense contractors.
While Saab specifically built the jet to easily swap out radars, radios and other equipment, the company has few options when it comes to powerplants. Already benefiting from sales of competing fighters, European turbine makers probably won’t rush to offer their services.
In addition, the United States, Russia and China regularly offer their friends major military aid packages that favor domestic companies. Even with the full weight of the Swedish government behind them, Saab will likely have trouble receiving anything close to the help Boeing and Lockheed get every year from Congress and the Pentagon.
Regardless of Nilsson’s valid jabs at the F-35, nearly a dozen countries across Europe, the Middle East and Asia are planning to buy the American stealth fighter — not the Gripen. While Canada plans to review its decision to buy F-35s, Ottawa says it will likely keep the Joint Strike Fighter in consideration.
And on May 11, Danish officials recommended Copenhagen join the F-35 program.
With concerns about the stealthy jet upsetting the balance of power in certain areas, the Pentagon has been perfectly happy to try and get other nations to buy improved F-15s, F-16s and F-18s. Moscow, Beijing, and various European countries have been pushing their wares with the same gusto.
Of course, Saab does have one customer in line to buy the newest Gripen— Brazil. Brasília plans to buy nearly 30 Gripen Es, along with almost 10 similar, two-seat Gripen Fs. “[This is] a significant milestone in the history of both countries.” Gen. Brig. Nivaldo Luiz Rossato, the Brazilian Air Force’s top officer, who Saab had invited to speak at the press conference, said through a translator.
“These fighters will be the backbone of the Brazilian air force.”
Rossato declined to mention the dramatic political upheaval in his country. On May 12, Brazilian senators voted to start impeachment proceedings against President Dilma Rousseff and put Vice President Michel Temer in charge until the trial is over. Brazilian authorities are also investigating her predecessor, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, over allegations of corruption.
It’s not clear what this might mean for Gripen E’s flagship sale. Whatever happens, Brazilian pilots don’t expect to get the fighters until 2019 at the earliest.
Elsewhere, the Swedish firm is still having trouble breaking into bigger markets. In 2015, after India trimmed its contract for French Rafales, Saab again offered up a partnership to try and get New Delhi to reconsider a deal.
Struggling to get their own domestic fighter design into action, Indian authorities have not made a decision on whether they will buy the Swedish planes. The Pentagon’s plans to increase cooperation with South Asia’s largest democracy — including co-producing the C-130 transport plane — could upend the plan.
“With Gripen you get something more,” Nilsson stressed. “It’s always been part of Saab’s strategy to have industrial cooperation. We don’t see it as a threat.”
Unfortunately for Saab and its well-designed fighter jet, others in the high-tech military warplane market— including those who help make Gripen what it is — generally do.