MIGHTY TACTICAL

This is the iconic European fighter that can operate anywhere

(Milan Nykodym, CC BY-SA 2.0)

The Saab Gripen is a beautiful fighter with a nifty little mane on its nose, and it's popular with small militaries around the world because it's cheap to operate, has high-mission readiness, and can take off from nearly anywhere. Seriously, if you've got a half mile of level pavement, you can probably get a Gripen in the air from it.


You might need to cut down some light poles or whatever, but that's on you.

The Gripen fighter, which recently saw its E-variant enter serial production, is squarely aimed at fighting whatever it needs to, including fifth-generation fighters like Russia's Su-57. That might be surprising since it's not as fast. Or have as many weapons. Or have much stealth coating or many materials.

But the Gripen's manufacturer, Saab, isn't trying to win at air shows, and it isn't accepting the price point required to develop stealth aircraft. (Even Russia can't actually afford its stealthy Su-57, which might not even be that stealthy.)

That's because Saab makes weapons for Sweden and for export to countries like Thailand, Hungary, and South Africa. These countries don't have the money to drop $100 million per F-35, a plane that costs $30,000-$70,000 per hour of flight. And they don't have the $10 billion to develop a Su-57 and fail like Russia did.

A Saab Gripen takes off from a public road.

(San Diego Air and Space Museum)

So Saab built the Gripen around a few complementary ideas. The first was that they could develop a capable jet fighter with a low cost per flight hour. Right now, new Gripens cost up to $60 million per copy and come out to $5,000 per flight hour.

Part of this low-cost per flight hour is making it easy to refuel, rearm, and maintain the plane on the ground. And, the way they did this allows operators to work the plane from nearly anywhere a 20-foot cargo container can be delivered on a truck, provided there are at least 875 yards of runway-ish concrete for the plane to take off from. So, Gripens can easily disperse during combat. Sure that's not scary for an aggressor who has to face them.

But operators, obviously, still need them to be lethal. Paper planes are cheap and hard to spot, too, but there's a reason they aren't popular with militaries. But the Gripen is lethal, partially because it can fire most NATO-produced missiles and partially because the entire plane was designed around electronic warfare.

A Saab JAS-39 Gripen in flight.

(Oleg V. Belyakov, CC BY-SA 3.0)

Electronic warfare, using radar and other signals to mask your own forces while also jamming the enemy's machines, is one of the tools that's supposed to keep the F-35 safe. But where the F-35 was laboriously and expensively built with its antennas and sensors in the stealth skin of the aircraft, Gripen took a more traditional route and just built fighters with electronic and conventional weapons, akin to the EA-18G Super Hornet.

But the Gripen's electronic warfare is robust, so much so that Saab believes the plane can blind nearly all of the Russian fighters the Gripen is designed to deter, especially the large number of Flankers in Russia's inventory but also the Su-57. Even better, Saab thinks the E-variant can fight the Su-57 on equal terms.

There is one serious caveat, though. Sweden doesn't want the fighter jet's electronic warfare tools recorded by adversaries who could create exploits against them. (Electronic warfare in combat turns into a game of tit-for-tat as each side tries to reconfigure their signals to defeat the other.) So, Sweden has rarely allowed pilots to turn on the full electronics suite in exercises with England.

And so, no one can be really certain how the Gripen E will perform against advanced air defenses and fighters. They can hide in the brush, they can take off from anywhere, but they can only probably cut their way through Russia's air force.