The commander of Sweden's air force, Mats Helgesson, recently made the bold statement that his country's Saab Gripen E fighter could beat Russia's formidable fleet of Sukhoi jets with none of the expensive stealth technology the US relies on.
"Gripen, especially the E-model, is designed to kill Sukhois. There we have a black belt," Helgesson told Yle at a presentation in Finland, where Sweden is trying to export the jets.
Russia's Sukhoi fighters have achieved a kind of legendary status for their ability to out-maneuver US fighter jets in dogfights and pull off dangerous and aggressive stunts in the air, but Gripen may have cracked the code.
The Gripen can't carry the most weapons and has no real stealth. And it isn't the longest-range, the fastest, or even the cheapest jet. But it has a singular focus that makes it a nightmare for Russia's fighter jets.
Justin Bronk, an aerial-combat expert at the Royal United Services Institute, told Business Insider that like the A-10 Warthog was built around a massive cannon, the Gripen was built around electronic warfare.
Virtually all modern jets conduct some degree of electronic warfare, but the Gripen E stands above the rest, according to Bronk.
Montage showing the different phases of an acrobatic maneuver performed by a Sukhoi Su-35.
Gripen pilots don't like to show their cards by demonstrating the full power of the jet's jamming in training. But the one time they did, it completely reversed the course of the mock battle in training, Bronk said.
"Several years ago the Gripen pilots got tired of being made fun of by German Typhoon pilots and came to play with their wartime electronic warfare and gave them a hell of a hard time," Bronk said. One of the Gripens was "reportedly able to appear on the left wing of a Typhoon without being detected" by using its "extremely respected" jamming ability, Bronk said.
"It would be fair to assume the Gripen is one of the most capable electronic warfighters out there," he said, adding that the Gripens that baffled the Typhoons were of the C/D series, which have much less powerful electronic-warfare capabilities than the E series Gripens that Helgesson described.
Who needs stealth?
The Gripen E series fully armed.
To defeat Russia's fearsome fighters and surface-to-air missiles, the US has largely turned to stealth aircraft. Stealth costs a fortune and must be built into the shape of the plane.
If Russia somehow cracks the code of detecting stealth-shaped fighters, the US's F-35, the most expensive weapons system in history, is cooked.
But Saab took a different, and cheaper, approach to combating Russia's fighters and missiles by focusing on electronic attack, which gives them an advantage over stealth because they can evolve the software without a ground-up rebuild, according to Bronk.
Saab plans to update the software on the Gripen E every two years, giving it more flexibility to meet evolving challenges, according to Bronk.
Map from 2016 showing Russian air-defense deployments.
But Bronk noted one issue with electronic warfare.
"The problem with basing a survival strategy around an electronic warfare suite is you don't really know if it's going to work," he said. "Even if it does, it's going to be a constant battle between your adversary and you" to get the edge on the enemy fighters as wave forms and methods of attack continuously change.
However, Sweden benefits from a Russian focus on US fighters. "Sweden is too small really to optimize your counter-electronic warfare capabilities against," Bronk said.
If war broke out between Russia and the West, Russia would likely try hardest to push back on US electronic warfare, rather than against Sweden's Gripen Es, of which there would be only a few dozen.
The whole concept of the Gripen E is to "operate in Swedish territory, take advantage of all sorts of uneven terrain under cover of friendly surface-to-air missiles with a superb EW suite which should in theory keep it safe from the majority of Russian missiles and air to air threats," Bronk said.
Additionally, the Gripen E can fire almost any missile made in the US or Europe.
"If you couple a very effective radar with excellent EW and a Meteor, the most effective longest range air-to-air missile which is resistant against [Russia's] jammers ... There's no reason not to assume it wouldn't be pretty damn effective," Bronk said. "If you're a flanker pilot, it's probably a very scary thing to face."
This article originally appeared on Business Insider. Follow @BusinessInsider on Twitter.
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