On August 26, the President and CEO of the Swedish aerospace and defense firm SAAB AB Micael Johansson informed reporters of his “extreme frustration” at the eight years-long lack of export successes for the Gripen fighter jet.
He told several defense media outlets at the firm’s Stockholm headquarters that the fighter was not meeting export expectations, blaming political factors and emphasizing that the aircraft’s performance attributes were not to blame.
In December, French President Emmanuel Macron visited the United Arab Emirates. He left with a $19 billion order for French Dassault Rafale fighter aircraft.
You wouldn’t see Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson performing energetic sales pitches for Sweden’s equally fine Gripen jets the way Macron does for French military equipment—or the way most leaders of other countries with defense industries do for their local companies.
The Gripen represents a very light fighter in a class below standard lightweights such as the American F-16 or French Rafale, and comparable to the Indian Tejas and Sino-Pakistani F-16. The aircraft uses the same American F404 engine as the Tejas, a powerplant originally designed for the U.S. Navy’s F-18 Hornet fighter, while the JF-17 uses a derivative of the RD-33 engine built for the Hornet’s Soviet rival the MiG-29.
The Gripen and its foreign counterparts have poorer flight performances than heavier designs, are restricted to carrying smaller radars, and are unable to carry large weapons payloads, but benefit from being cheaper, easier to maintain, and straightforward to keep at high availability rates. Their most notable advantage is their very low operational and therefore lifetime costs, leading the Gripen to be dubbed the most cost-effective Western fighter with under a third of the lifetime costs of an American F-35. Low operational costs have been particularly key to keeping the Gripen E/F program affordable to compensate for the significant overruns in production costs.
Older variants of the Gripen were exported to the Czech Republic, South Africa, and Thailand and leased to Hungary, although none of these countries are expected to be clients for the latest Gripen E/F variant which integrates a much improved F414 engine and belatedly introduces a phased array radar.
The new Gripen E/F/ has overwhelmingly superior situational awareness and electronic warfare capabilities to its predecessors, with its avionics often compared to those of the F-35 in terms of sophistication. Nevertheless, the fighter class has seen no sales in close to eight years since a $5.44 billion contract for 36 fighters was signed in 2014 to equip the Brazilian Air Force.
Since the end of the Cold War, the Swedish government has mostly been putting defense exports in the hands of the globalized market. But with other countries’ leaders pitching their companies to governments now investing more in defense, it’s a flawed strategy.