Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskyy hit the road last week to ask for some of the world's best jet fighters. As promises of F-16s come rolling in, that might seem odd. But Ukraine now seeks a different fighter: The Saab JAS 39 Gripen from the soon-to-be NATO ally Sweden.
The fact is, Ukraine needs as many fighters and pilots as it can get. And the Gripen makes even more sense for Ukraine than the F-16 does.
The F-16 is one of the world's best and most capable fighter jets. But designers had American operations in mind as they created it. It has a huge air intake right above the runway, making it highly susceptible to foreign object debris.
The F-16 also has weak landing gear. In 2020, an American F-16 crashed during touchdown in South Korea even with an instructor pilot at the controls. The investigation found that an actuator failed to lock the right landing gear into position in time, causing the jet to be totaled. That was on a well-prepared airfield in peacetime with a highly experienced pilot.
So the F-16 will almost certainly be highly effective in the air as Ukrainian pilots get experience. But Ukraine will likely struggle to shuffle F-16s to remote airbases during Russian attacks the way they have done with their Su-24s and other Soviet-made fighters. And it only takes a few small objects on the runway getting sucked into an engine or tripping up the landing gear to destroy a jet.
But the Saab Gripen is specifically designed for survivability while fighting from remote airbases and even highways against Russia.
Where the Saab JAS 39 Gripens shine
Sweden is 500 years old, with dozens of wars and major military conflicts under its belt. But read through its history, and you'll find a few common belligerents that the country fought repeatedly. One of those, and its largest threat today, is Russia.
Sweden has, for decades, prepared for the possibility of a Soviet or Russian invasion that forces its military to fight an almost guerrilla conflict. And it designed all of its weapons to survive and fight against a more powerful, occupying force.
In the case of the Air Force, that meant its homegrown fighters from Saab had to be able to launch from nearly anywhere in a pinch, including sections of specially maintained and prepared highway. The Soviet fighters that Ukraine currently flies can do the same thing.
The Gripen's landing gear is strong enough to survive a rough airstrip and high enough to keep the engines away from most debris.
Meanwhile, it can carry a lot of NATO and other European weapons. The C and D-series, which are the ones Ukraine will likely get, can carry a large selection of air-to-air missiles, air-to-surface missiles, and guided bombs. The air-to-surface missiles and guided bombs are essential to Ukraine's strategy of hitting Russian headquarters ahead of ground assaults and of bombing bridges to isolate Crimea.
The Saab Gripen would be a great addition to Ukraine's arsenal on day one, maybe even better than the F-16. But if Russia starts risking its much larger air force to whittle away at Ukraine's, then Ukraine will need all the F-16s it can get, as well as Gripens, Soviet leftovers, and the kitchen sink.
Luckily, Gripens will pair well with F-16s.