Swedish Defense Minister, Pål Jonsson, recently voiced an offer to provide familiarization training for a few Ukrainian pilots on the Saab-built JAS 39 Gripen, a “fourth generation plus” fighter. Like the recent exploratory sessions conducted at the Marion Air National Guard Base in Tucson, Arizona, this would serve only as familiarization, not qualification, training. Ukrainian pilots would get some simulator sorties in the aircraft and a handful of orientation flights in the jet itself.
“It’s about orientation training,” Jonsson said.
Jonsson made the statement on Sweden’s TV4 during a recent visit to Ukraine.Jonsson and Civil Defense Minister, Carl Oskar Bohlin, were on an official visit to Ukraine to visit military units that already use Swedish defense materiel.
While not a current offer to provide aircraft, it does open a door on another option to advance Ukraine’s ability to achieve air superiority in the future.
The Saab JAS 39 Gripen
The Gripen is a single-engine, lightweight multi-role fighter aircraft that has been in service with the Swedish Air Force since 1996. To date, 271 aircraft have been produced and provided to Sweden, Czechia, Hungary, and South Africa.
The delta wing aircraft is extremely agile, with its forward canard controls making it a very capable within-visual range ‘dogfight’ platform. This is enhanced using fly-by-wire computer technology with relaxed stability – meaning it can, like other computer-assisted control systems used in the F-16 and other Western fighters, fly at the edge of the in-control flight envelope at high and low airspeeds.
Three other aspects of the Gripen stand out, besides its agility: and
· Its low altitude beyond visual range missile capability against enemy combat aircraft, including fighters, bombers, cruise missiles and drones.
While the US AIM-120 is a solid rocket motor propelled missile that burns out after a relatively short time, the Gripen’s Meteor air-to-air missile uses a ramjet engine that can propel the weapon throughout its entire flight profile with speeds reaching Mach 4 (four times the speed of sound).
The AIM-120s in use by F-16s and other US and allied fighters is optimally employed at higher altitudes and higher speeds, to optimize its range and end-game maneuverability, this environment would expose Ukrainian Air Force pilots to the formidable S-300 and S-400 surface-to-air missiles (SAMs).
The advantage of the Meteor is that continues to be powered through a longer time period during its pursuit of its target, meaning it can be fired from lower altitude and at subsonic speeds – an environment much which is safer for non-stealthy aircraft when faced with the SAMs Ukraine would most likely face.
This is the airspace that Ukrainian Air Force MiG-29s and Su-27s have currently been operating where they use low-level flight to use terrain to mask them from the ground based, long-range anti-aircraft weapons the Russians are using.
The Meteor missile is also designed to kill any flying weapons system – airplanes, drones, cruise missiles – even in the presence of electronic countermeasures such as jamming, decoying, etc. Perfect for the situation in which Ukraine finds itself.
Its range is less than that of an AIM-120, but the Meteor’s respectable 100-kilometers reach will outperform anything Russia currently has.
· Its ability to operate from ‘rough’ airfields.
The Gripen’s ability to operate from rudimentary, ‘rough’ airfields, and even highways allowing aircraft dispersal to multiple locations would greatly enhance the survivability of these fighters.
They were specifically designed at the strategic military planning level to face an invasion by Russia.
They can operate from “bare-bones” locations that would present big challenges to other Western jets. They are designed to take off and land at short runway airfields with lower maintenance requirements in these environments compared with other Western fighters.
· The Gripen is relatively low cost but delivers on quality.
The Gripen is a relatively inexpensive fighter to fly and maintain. The approximate cost per operational flying hour, based on 2022 figures, is approximately $6,000 for the Gripen, compared with $9,000 for the F-16, and around $26,000 for the fifth generation, F-35 stealth fighter – which is almost invisible to Russian radars, including the S-300 and S-400 systems.
“Running costs” for comparable fourth generation plus [non-stealthy] options include the Typhoon Eurofighter at $22,000, the French Rafale at $21,000, and the US F-18 E/F Hornet at $14,000.
What has Sweden offered Ukraine?
The offer to provide training is not a commitment to provide aircraft to the Ukrainian Air Force. In the same interview, the minister said that all the Gripen aircraft in Sweden’s inventory are in active use by their air force for their own defense against possible attack by Russia.
"We need them for the defense of our territory right now, but we are opening up for letting the Ukrainians test the Gripen," he told TV4.
While they have 204 of these jets in their possession, many are in storage.
But could Ukraine actually get the JAS 39, somehow from somewhere?
Could Ukraine get the JAS 39 Gripen from somewhere else?
Besides the Swedish Air Force, other countries that currently field the Gripen are South Africa, Czechia, and Hungary. The Czech Air Force has committed all of its JAS 39s in support of NATO as has Poland in respect of its F-16s.
The equivocation evident in Hungary’s relationship with Moscow, in spite of being a NATO member, makes it unlikely that it would provide any defense assistance to Ukraine, particularly in giving up its fighters help Ukraine to gain air superiority over Russia by.
South Africa is unlikely to provide the jets either. Its Gripens are in operational use and the government continues to court its decades long relationship with the Russia.
Given that air forces friendly to Ukraine don’t have jets available to provide Ukraine the only way to get them would be to acquire new production aircraft from the factory.
Brand new aircraft, as opposed to those currently available in allies’ inventories, would take years for Ukraine to secure not the months its current needs require. This does not only apply to the Gripen but the acquisition of any new fourth generation plus or fifth generation stealth Western aircraft.
For example US-made F-35, which is service with the US and other NATO air forces, including the UK, Norway, the Netherlands and Poland.
Poland has ordered 32 F-35 fighters. According to Lockheed-Martin’s website: “Poland concluded its fighter acquisition program with the signing of a Letter of Offer and Acceptance between the U.S. and Polish governments on Jan. 31, 2020, for 32 F-35A jets with initial deliveries beginning in 2024 and in-country deliveries in 2026.”
New aircraft acquisition takes time. A lot of time.
Would the JAS 39 Gripen be suitable for Ukraine in any case?
Definitely. If Ukraine acquired the Gripen, it would greatly enhance its ability to dominate its skies. If a way could be found to provide a couple of dozen of the aircraft within the next year it would, I believe, be a speedier solution than that offered by F-16s.
Given that it was specifically designed at a total military force level to respond to a full-scale invasion of the nation where it not only operates, but where it lands and takes off, makes it perhaps a great choice for Ukraine.
The problem is they aren’t available right now.
But, with an eye toward the future, the option of mixed aircraft with different operational missions is something to consider. For instance ,with F-16s operating as the main aircraft and the Gripen as a remote airfield fighter, for instance.
Then, in the following few years, the F-35 in its F-35A conventional version or F-35B VSTOL (vertical and short-field takeoff and landing configuration) would not only strengthen the Ukrainian Air Force but, as a hopefully by then NATO member, the democratic world, in Europe and beyond.
In the meantime, Ukraine should take all the opportunities it is presented to explore the fighter aircraft the west has to offer and fight to get the training, aircraft and support equipment and infrastructure it needs for this war that Russia brought to Ukraine.
The Swedish defense minister summed up the goals of the orientation training: “This gives Ukraine a basis for future decisions to rearm its defense. They are investing in strengthening their capabilities in the long term.”
Unfortunately, the path to add the Saab JAS 39 Gripen, which is a great platform, to the Ukrainian Air Force’s arsenal is not going to be as simple or as quick as we would like it to be. Right now, Ukraine can take it for a test drive, but will have to wait a while for delivery.
The views expressed are the author’s and not necessarily those of Kyiv Post
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