Sweden is pausing plans to transfer JAS 39 Gripen fighters to Ukraine, reportedly to enable Kyiv’s air forces to focus on integrating the US-made F-16 fighters when they eventually arrive. Swedish Defense Minister Pål Jonson announced the decision on May 28, citing a request by members of NATO’s aviation coalition.

How Gripen fighters became a possibility for Ukraine

In September 2023, the Swedish government requested a feasibility study into the possibility of transferring Gripen aircraft to Ukraine, according to Sweden’s Svergies Radio.

The study was tasked to investigate where and how quickly Ukrainian pilots and ground crew could be trained on the aircraft, how and when a handover could take place, and the timeframe needed to replace the donated planes. It was suggested that between 16 and 18 of Sweden’s 90-strong fleet was a reasonable quantity.

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Other factors influencing any decision included the current number of partially built Gripen airframes held at Saab’s Linköping assembly plant and receiving authority from Washington, since much of the instrumentation and electronics are of US origin.

By February of this year, as Sweden’s membership of NATO looked imminent, it was reported that the country had indeed decided to offer Gripens to Ukraine. Sweden formally joined the Alliance on March 7.

Setback – for now

Jonson’s latest announcement therefore came as a blow to Kyiv with Ukraine’s Ambassador to Sweden, Andrii Plakhotniuk, saying on May 29 that the aircraft were still desperately needed and hoped Stockholm would reconsider its decision.

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Just two days later, on May 31, Sweden’s Foreign Minister Tobias Billström said, on the fringes of the NATO Ministers’ meeting in Prague: “We will not be supplying Swedish Gripen for the time being, as the message from the F-16 coalition is that it will be difficult [for Ukraine] to integrate two types of aircraft at the same time.”

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However, it seems that all may not be lost. Billström said that it was still possible that the Gripens can be provided once the coalition has done its job and the F-16s have arrived and are working. He then went on to announce that to support the F-16s, Sweden would provide Ukraine with two Saab 340 aircraft equipped with the ASC 890 airborne early warning and control (AEW&C) suite of detection systems.

On May 31, President, Volodymyr Zelensky, along withSweden’s Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson, signed a Security Cooperation Agreement. The agreement, which will be valid for 10 years, will provide an average of €2.2 billion ($2.4 billion) in military aid to Ukraine annually. Included within the agreement is the possibility that Gripen aircraft, Archer self-propelled howitzers and CV90 combat vehicles would be transferred to Kyiv.

Why is Ukraine so keen on Gripen?

It is not just to make up the numbers. The Saab JAS 39 Gripen is a fourth-generation, single-engine, multi-role fighter aircraft built by the Swedish manufacturer Saab Military Aircraft. It is equipped with powerful electronic warfare (EW) capability and is compatible with a wide range of NATO standard air delivered weapons.

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Its designation JAS comes from the Swedish terms: Jakt (air-to-air), Attack (air-to-surface), and Spaning (reconnaissance)– roles the Swedish military wanted the aircraft to perform. The result was the Gripen (Gryphon) a light, maneuverable, easy to maintain, and cost-efficient multi-role fighter that entered service in 1996.

It is not as large, fast or capable as the F-16, but its flexibilityand versatility make it attractive. Being less sophisticated than the US aircraft, it is relatively cheap and easy to maintain. It can operate from unprepared runways and highways with a quick turnaround time, which makes it harder for an enemy to target. It can carry most of the same weapons as the F-16,making interoperability more straightforward.

Saab has produced over 300 units over the past 28 years, with seven upgraded variants, the latest model being the JAS 39F Gripen. It is currently operated by more than six countries, including Brazil, South Africa, Czechia, Hungary, and Thailand, with many more showing interest in purchasing the aircraft.

Ukraine has asked its NATO (and non-NATO) partners to give it any available fighters and fighter bombers, including the French Dassault Mirage 2000, the Typhoon Eurofighter, the US F-18 and others.

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The NATO aviation coalition considers it prudent to go with what is available and what the Ukrainians could learn to operate and maintain in a realistic time frame. Currently,that’s the F-16 but the time for the Gripen may be just around the corner.

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