Why the Gripen may be the true "21st Century Fighter"

Artist's rendering of a "semi-stealth" Gripen.

The P-51 Mustang, the F-86 Sabre, the F-4 Phantom II, the F-15 Eagle.  For aviation buff's, these names and numbers conjure up images not just of fighter aircraft, but periods of time.  The Mustang changed the game over Europe in WWII by having the range to escort bomber aircraft into the heart of enemy territory.  The F-86 roared over Korea.  The F-4 bristling with missiles, launching off an aircraft carrier into Vietnamese airspace, the F-15 dominating the skies over the Middle East.  Each of these fighters were defined by their eras, built to counter an enemy that was developing its own increasingly sophisticated war machines, be it Nazi Germany or the Communist bloc.

The B-2 "Spirit" stealth bomber, along with the F-22 "Raptor" and F-35 "Lightning II" fighters have continued this trend.  Sparing no expense in the quest to become dominant over the modern skies, these aircraft have all had long, expensive, and troubled developments in a quest to bring unquestionable superiority over the enemy...  But who's the enemy?

Russian military "graveyard".
Is it Russia?  Since the fall of the Soviet Union, the Russian people has found little use for its once huge military, and have since pared it down a great deal.  Military development was cut back, and some projects were cancelled or delayed indefinitely.  Currently, Russia spends just over 10% of what the USA does in military spending.   It has since been announced that they intend to increase this in an effort to modernize their military, but total spending would still be a small fraction of that of the Americans.  Russia also exports much of its oil surplus to Europe, depending on those sales to enjoy prosperity not realized in its closed off, Cold War days.  Clearly, any thoughts of Russian becoming aggressive and going back to their Cold War mentality are unfounded.

China's latest, the J-31.
If not Russia, then what about the current Communist superpower, China?  China's economy has been steadily growing and its government has been taking advantage of this to beef up its military and start developing its own modern equipment.  Lately it has even been developing it's own stealth fighters, the J-20 and J-31.  Again, Chinese aggression seems quite unlikely.  They've been distancing themselves from North Korea and its anti-western rhetoric.  China's new found economic power comes mostly due to its expanding industrial might assembling goods for western markets, like the USA and Canada.  With this new found economic might, China needs resources from countries like Canada, and has recently invested in our oil-sands.  Needless to say, China is quite unlikely to provoke an open conflict with some of its largest trading partners.

F-15s and F-16s over Iraq.
Over the last 25 years, military conflict has been limited to "police actions" against rogue states, usually involved with terrorism.  Mali, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, and the former Yugoslavia.  These conflicts have involved an overwhelming coalition of allied forces going against a much smaller, less well equipped enemy that is nonetheless embedded in and often willing to engage in unconventional warfare to help even the odds.  Recent rumblings in countries like SyriaIran, and North Korea show us that this type of warfare is not likely to disappear anytime soon.

Asymmetric Warfare is now the norm.  The chances of meeting an enemy over open ground, with roughly similar forces are slim.  Indiscriminate IEDs are the enemy's new weapons of choice.  So, instead of risking soldiers' lives in high threat areas, we send in the UCAVs.

"Reaper" UCAV.
UCAV's have proven their worth.  They can loiter over an area for hours, waiting, like a vulture looking for its meal.  When an insurgent is identified, pin-point accurate munitions can take out a target with a minimum amount of collateral damage, all while its operator sits in a safe location miles away.

The UCAV hasn't rendered the manned fighter completely obsolete though, not yet, anyway.  They are incapable of defending themselves against enemy aircraft, so enemy airspace must first be cleared.  These "rogue nations" usually don't have much of an air defence force, but they do have some.  Usually in the form of older MiG-29s or similar Cold War era aircraft.  So far, UCAVs can only carry a very light payload, usually limited to short range missiles and light bombs.  Newer versions will improve on this, but they are still years away.  UAVs have also been susceptible to electronic warfare attacks by more sophisticated opponents.

Obviously, there is still a need for a manned fighter.  Both for attacking larger, "hardened" targets and for providing air cover and superiority to allow the UCAVs to do their job.  The question is:  Which fighter?

The harsh reality of budget cuts.
Military spending has never been that popular in Canada.  Political parties have won elections while running on a platform of decreased military spending, and then later committing that underfunded military to hostile operations.  The Avro Arrow was cancelled due to its high cost.  Even the F-35 controversy is centred more on the aircraft's high costs rather than its capabilities (or lack thereof).  Of course, Canada isn't alone in this.  The end of the Cold War, combined with the economic downturn of the debt crisis, have led people to question the billions of dollars poured into defence spending, while other programs face drastic cuts.

Given the decreased political popularity towards military spending, combined with recent financial "meltdowns", "austerity measures" and "sequestrations"; the trend for the first half of 21st century is very clear:  MILITARY BUDGETS WILL BE CUT.  Unfortunately, These same military forces will also be tasked with engaging "rogue states" around the world, often with very little preparation time.  The next major conflict could be in the Middle East, South East Asia...  Anywhere.  Devoting a standing force in one area will only weaken response needed for another.  This is the reality of warfare in the 21st century.  Our armed services will be forced to do more, with less, and do it faster than ever before.

Reality hits you hard, bro.

Military spending has its advocates, of course.  It creates jobs, and many consider that price should never be an object when comes to keeping us safe.  That's all well and good, but by that reasoning, first response services like police, fire, and ambulance should enjoy the same limitless spending.  Instead, first responders are often the first services to be cut when budgets need to be slashed.  Many departments have to do what they can to ensure the public safety while being understaffed and forced to use old, obsolete equipment, and yet they seem to make do.

So what is a modern military to do?  The answer is simple.  Don't overbuy.  Look hard and long at what requirements are needed.  Buy the equipment that fulfills that need, preferably with a little "wiggle room" for future upgrades and enhancements.  That equipment should also be affordable to procure, naturally, but also affordable to maintain and use.  What isn't needed is the "latest and greatest" just for the sake of keeping up with our neighbours.  The days of outspending our enemy into bankruptcy are long gone.  To keep spending ridiculous amounts only puts us in danger of spending ourselves into bankruptcy.

1 hour in the F-35 = 4 hours in a Gripen.
Which brings us to the Gripen.  It's affordable.  When looking at initial procurement costs, the Gripen is one of, if not the, most affordable aircraft to buy.  This allows armed forces to either buy more fighters, or use that money for other things.  But initial procurement costs aren't the most important price factor, as it entails a one time payout for a set amount of equipment.  What matters even more is sustainment costs.  How much does it cost to actually fly the thing?

Cost per flight hour is a big deal.  Why?  Because it not only determines how much you can actually fly an aircraft given a fixed budget, but it is also determines how sustainable (and vulnerable) that aircraft will be in the future if budgets need to be cut.  To give an example, let's look at Australia's F-111 strike bomber:

Too expensive for "down under", the F-111.
Although the F-111 had a bit of a troubled (F-35 like) beginning, it eventually found its niche as a potent long range low-level strike bomber.  Most famous for a 1986 bombing raid against Libya, the F-111 could carry a heavy bomb load deep into enemy territory, very quickly and below enemy radar detection.  For Australia, it proved attracting as a maritime strike aircraft as well a deterrence towards aggressors.

Despite the F-111's long range, high speed, large payload, and robust airframe, the Australian government decided to retire its F-111 fleet in favour of the slower, shorter ranged, and less heavily armed F-18E/F Super Hornet.  Oddly enough, the Australian F-111s were nowhere near the limit to their flight hours, nor were they obsolete or unsafe.  No, Australia retired its F-111 fleet because it was simply too expensive to fly, with each hour of flight requiring 180 hours of work done on the ground.  The Australian F-111 experience should act as a warning to all modern military forces.  Just because you can afford to buy it, doesn't mean you can afford to fly it.

The F-16.  Cheaper when you buy them in bulk!
Now, contrast the F-111 with the F-16 Fighting Falcon, aka:  the "Viper".  The Viper is a much smaller and simpler plane, with a single engine, a fraction of the payload, and a slower (but still impressive) top speed.  Yet, despite being an "inferior" aircraft, the F-16 has been in much demand from smaller countries with smaller budgets.  Easily the most prolific fighter design in the western world, the F-16 offers close to, but not quite, the performance of much more expensive aircraft (like the F-15) for a much more affordable price, both in initial costs and cost per flight hour.  Why?  Because it was designed to be affordable.  Because it was so affordable and capable, many air forces lined up to purchase it.  Thanks to economies of scale, this made the F-16 even more affordable as time went on.

Sadly, although the F-35 is touted as the replacement to the F-16, this is not the case.  The F-35 lacks the Viper's simple, lightweight design philosophy.  Instead, the F-35 is a heavy, complicated machine that is only made affordable due to implied, and possibly forced, economies of scale.

So if the F-35 isn't the new F-16, what is?  Not the Super Hornet, it's bigger, more complicated, slower, and more expensive to run (see the Jane's chart above).  Nor is the Rafale or Typhoon, which are arguably better aircraft than the F-16, but far more expensive.  No, the aircraft most likely to beat the F-16 at its own game is the Saab JAS-39 Gripen.

Hungarian Gripens, possibly bought at a Costco.
Again, looking at the above chart (Jane's is a very respected source btw), the Gripen's cost per flight hour is $4,700.  That's substantially lower than even the F-16 ($7,700), and a mere fraction of that of the Super Hornet ($11,000), Rafale ($16,500), and Typhoon ($18,000 est.).  Now look at the F-35's projected cost:  $21,000 for the F-35A version up to $31,000 per hour for the STOVL and carrier versions.  Yikes.  For every F-35A put into the air, you can afford to send 4 Gripens up instead...  And then take everybody out for a round of drinks afterward...  And a steak dinner.

Despite the Gripen's low cost, it is still a very capable airplane.  Seen by many as the equal, if not superior aircraft to the American F-16, the Gripen has the additional benefit of being cheaper to fly and easier to service.  It also has the benefit of being able to operate from unprepared runways.  If that wasn't enough, the Gripen is also incredibly deployable, requiring only a single C-130 Hercules to carry the supplies needed to support 10 Gripens for a 4 week deployment, with plenty of room to spare.

The Gripen F demonstrator:  More power, same low cost.
Better still, the Gripen has shown that it still has a few more tricks up its sleeve.  The Gripen NG program managed to add a slew of more modern equipment to the already potent fighter, along with adding some additional fuel capacity.  This was done without adding any substantial weight or drag to the aircraft.  Better still, the NG program fitted a new engine that has 20% more power and has the potential to produce even more.  With an AESA radar, IRST, more powerful engine capable of super cruise, and superior BVR missiles, the Gripen NG (E/F) will not only be cheaper to fly than the F-16, but it will be superior in many aspects as well.

Proposed "Sea Gripen" design.
But what about the future?  It turns out that the Gripen may have a few more tricks yet.  Its ability to take off and land on relatively short, unprepared runways make it an easy conversion to a carrier capable aircraft.  A naval version has been proposed, sporting a sturdier set of landing gear and an arrestor hook.  Although no serious development has been taken yet, it has been presented to countries like the U.K. as a possible back-up to the F-35C.

Artists rendering of a Gripen with CFTs.
Other options are possible as well.  The Gripen currently does not utilize a conformal fuel tank (CFT) like those of the F-15 and F-16.  CFTs are currently being developed for the Typhoon, so CFTs for the Gripen seem a likely option in the future.  Another possible option is to develop an electronic warfare (EW) version, similar to the EF-18G "Growler", EF-111 "Raven", or the famous "Wild Weasel" aircraft of the Vietnam War.  The EF-18G currently has the EW role mostly to itself, but it uses the antiquated AN/ALQ-99 ECM pod.  It is quite likely the "Next Generation Jammer" will be much easier to implement, as it is being planned for use on the single seat F-35, so it's likely to be mountable on the Gripen as well.

One of the Gripen's biggest selling points is its "open source" flight software.  Unlike proprietary U.S. flight software, the end user can modify, update, and upgrade the Gripen's software however they see fit, tweaking it to fit their needs.  On the contrary, U.S. military aircraft are very "hands off" requiring the need to contract the manufacturer and get permission from the U.S. government for all future upgrades.

In a world of shrinking defence budgets, asymmetric warfare, and global hotspots requiring quick and decisive action taken with little warning or preparation, military powers all over the world are going to be demanding an affordable, capable fighter than can be brought to bear quickly and easily.  The Gripen just so happens to fit the bill nicely.  It has already enjoyed some modest sales success but the future will likely show an even greater demand.  The F-16 is nearing the end of its production.  The F-35, once promised to be the F-16 for the future, is swamped with budget overruns, delays, and controversy.  Even if it does mature out of its "growing pains" it will still likely be too expensive to fly in a world of military budget cuts.

This leaves us with the Saab Gripen to fill the F-16 proverbial shoes.  Smart governments will take a long, hard look and wonder:  "Do we really need that zillion-dollar stealth fighter to fight a country that still uses MiG-21s?"  "Can our pilots do their job if we cut back training hours to save money?"  and more importantly, "What if our fighter is too expensive to risk us finding out it doesn't live to expectations?"

Smarter governments will only need to ask two questions:  "When can we buy the Gripen?" and "Can we please start making the Gripen ourselves to help meet demand?"

"Stealth Gripen" concept (notice the markings!)

Then, there's always the Gripen's possible future...


  1. Have you seen this?

    "Combat Aircraft ‏@CombatAir

    More to 'Red Flag' Gripen feature in April issue. MT @Rotorfocus Gripens achieved 4:1 kill ratio against USAF Aggressors"


  2. Just read your article. I couldn't agree more. It is exactly the same problems we have to deal with in Denmark and the other countries that have to choose F-16 successors at a time with low budgets. But I suspect the American lobby is too strong so the governments choose the wrong aircraft.

  3. the answer is simple - just give me the F16 - proven - great fighter - and its made in the USA -

  4. As a novice, with some light interest of air fighters.

    In every single forum I have read, most debates have ended with the conclusion that it comes down to the skill of the pilot.

    So..an airplane that cost 5-6 times more per hours to fly, how much practice will they get?

  5. I think the operational cost of the Saab Gripen NG will be much higher than the $4700 you indicate here; it's still under development so cost are only guesstimated and according to this article the manufacturer has claimed operational cost as $10,000.

    1. http://www.saabgroup.com/en/Air/Gripen-Fighter-System/Gripen-for-Brazil/The-Fighter-Gripen-NG/

      Engine replacement < 1 hour
      Turnaround time < 10 min
      Cost per flight hour < $ 4000

    2. This Richard Shimooka have some false statements in his article, which make him not trust-worthy. The operational cost of Gripen have been less than 4000$/hour And SAAB claim that Gripen E will have even lower operating cost. The operating cost, due to SAAB, is exclusive salary for staff. That´s because salary vary between countries. Because Gipen have a smaller staff, the difference to competitors are even bigger. The price offered to a customer varies depending on what the customer buy. Some customers by education and everything else and calculate the cost/hour on that sum, which of course is higher.
      SAAB guarantee the price, so it will not be higher and fighter production is mostly handy craft which don´t benefit much from bigger series. The latter is just another way LM try to manipulate the fact that F-35 is overpriced and inferior.

  6. Brought at a Costco? No, bought at an IKEA!

    Its just like a car race, the F35 is the Bugatti Veyron, the typhoon is this years Ferrari, the saab is a rice burner' and the F18 is a turbo charged old chevy school bus. The veyron gets through pit stop 1 but runs outs fuel at stop 2 because its too long; it has to be picked up by a truck (another boeing). the Ferrari almost wins the race but one of the 3 riceburners on the track runs it off the road and the other 2 go on to claim 1st and 2nd place. The Chevy bus runs outa fuel at pit stop 3 and 4 (after the race is over).
    Having said that maybe one should hedge bets and get 50 typhoons and 150 saabs? Would work well in training getting young pilots to fly the saab and work harder to defeat the squad keaders typhoons.

  8. The Typhoon and the Gripen would make a hell of a mixed fleet of fighters. However, other than their guns there is likely few parts common between them and the Typhoon is almost as expensive to buy and run as the F-35. I think Doug is likely right and that a mix of SH or ASH and Gripen would field a pretty fantastic force to be reckoned with. Hell if you switched out the RADAR in the SH/ASH with the one from the Gripen and gave the Gripen the same gun as the SH/ASH you could improve the SH/ASH and reduce operating costs a bit further in the long term. Of course it would likely add millions per jet to adapt the SH/ASH to different RADAR and the Gripens gun carriage to a M61A2.

  9. Except in this case thr bugatti is slower cant stop cant turn but may be able to hide a little bit better

  10. if you pu vettel in a sabb and i drove a ferrari vettel would win because the experience
    from the amount of time spent driving fast cars the same goes for pilots
    the more they can fly the better they are Gripen means better pilots and more of them