JAS 39 Gripen: The Fighter Plane Russia Hates.
By Harrison Kass
With Sweden (and Finland) on the cusp of joining NATO, after decades of neutrality, let’s take a look at Sweden’s most impressive fighter: the homegrown Saab JAS 39 Gripen.
Many Americans associate Saab exclusively with their automobiles. Saab models, like the 900, 9-3, and 9-5, were popular amongst American consumers before the company’s car division ceased operations in 2011. What most Americans likely fail to appreciate is that Saab was originally, and is still currently, an aerospace and defence company. Founded in Stockholm, Sweden, in 1937, the company has a proud history of weapons and aircraft development. Saab is well known for their lineage of fighter jets, including the Tunnan, Lansen, Draken, and Viggen.
Saab will even be teaming up with Boeing to manufacture the US Air Force’s new jet trainer, the T-7 Red Hawk. But Saab’s most advanced fighter, the contemporary lynchpin of the Swedish Air Force, is the Gripen.
The JAS 39 Gripen Story
The Gripen was developed to replace aging Draken and Viggen aircraft. The Swedes wanted a new jet that could hit Mach 2, take-off from short runways, and that would be smaller than the Viggen while carrying a higher payload. Foreign aircraft were considered as replacements, including the F-16, the F/A-18, the F-20, and the Mirage 2000, before Saab was chosen to create a brand-new airframe.
For Sweden, creating an advanced fighter jet was a significant, and polarizing, endeavour. The program was under the microscope, so to speak. Two crashes during the flight-testing phase exacerbated the attention and criticism. In the first incident, in 1989, test pilot Lars Radestrom crashed while landing, as the result of an error with the fly-by-wire flight control system (FCS) pitch-control, which caused pilot-induced oscillation. In the second incident, in 1993, Radestom – back for more – lost control of the Gripen during a roll at low altitude; the Gripen stalled and Radestrom ejected, surviving.) The crash was credited to high amplification of the pilot’s stick command inputs. Corrections took months.
Eventually, Saab got the Gripen on track; the jet has been in service since 1996.
JAS 39 Gripen: What It Can Do
Designed as a multi-role fighter, the Gripen’s JAS designation refers to Jakt (air-to-air), Attack (air-to-surface), and Spaning (recon). The Gripen is light, with one seat and one engine, and maneuverable; the jet was designed with canards and delta wings, to achieve relaxed stability. An aircraft with relaxed stability cannot be trimmed to maintain a certain attitude. Instead, if the plane pitches or rolls, it will continue to pitch or roll in that direction, at an increasing rate, until the pilot intervenes. The result is a manoeuvrable, albeit unstable, aircraft.
As Europe has been relatively stable since the Gripen’s introduction, and because Sweden exercises a restrained foreign policy, the Gripen has not seen much action (with Sweden, nor with foreign customers like Hungary, Brazil, or South Africa). But the Gripen did perform admirably at the 2006 Red Flag exercise in Alaska. Head-to-head with F-16s, Eurofighter Typhoons, and F-15s, the Gripen held its own, scoring several “kills” with only one loss.
Now, with Sweden set to join NATO, the Gripen will inevitably be compared to its Russian counterparts. While the Gripen is quite capable, open conflict between a NATO-aligned Sweden and Russia still seems unlikely; comparisons between the Gripen and Russian aircraft will hopefully remain a strictly theoretical exercise.