Meet the Saab JAS-39E Gripen: The World’s Most Powerful Fighter Jet (You Never Heard Of)

 In Air

In late January, the Saab JAS-39E Gripen arrived in Finland for its flight eval­u­a­tion as part of the “HX Challenge,” Finland’s search for its next fight­er air­craft to aug­ment and slowly replace its fleet of F/A‑18C/D Hornets. Saab’s offer­ing, as some commentators have remarked, is the last “euro­ca­nard” to be eval­u­at­ed in the HX pro­gram. It also comes “bun­dled” with the GlobalEye Airborne Early Warning & Control (AEW&C) air­craft, which Saab mar­kets as a force mul­ti­pli­er for the Gripen.

The com­plete sys­tems, main­te­nance, and air­craft pack­age that the Saab is sell­ing has many poten­tial bonus­es for its poten­tial selec­tion as the HX air­craft, since Finland is look­ing for sub­stan­tial domes­tic repair capa­bil­i­ty and pos­si­ble tech­nol­o­gy trans­fer. If more sys­tems are sold, it could mean more tech­nol­o­gy is trans­ferred, lead­ing to fur­ther poten­tial devel­op­ment of Finnish indus­try. Despite the require­ment in the HX pro­gram, Finnish indus­try seems pretty luke­warm to the idea of pro­duc­ing Gripen parts domes­ti­cal­ly. However, Saab has pushed the idea pretty hard, stat­ing that some Patria plants could even pro­duce and over­haul engines domes­ti­cal­ly.

Another inter­est­ing aspect of the Gripen offer is the inclu­sion of ded­i­cat­ed elec­tron­ic war­fare pods in addi­tion to the Gripen’s already sup­pos­ed­ly for­mi­da­ble on-board jam­ming capa­bil­i­ties. This, in Saab’s words, is “prob­a­bly the most advanced EW suite” car­ried by a fight­er, which would make the Gripen a con­sid­er­able asset for Suppression or Destruction of Enemy Air Defense (SEAD/DEAD) mis­sions. However, Boeing is includ­ing a ded­i­cat­ed and proven elec­tron­ic war­fare air­craft, the EA-18G Growler in its HX pro­gram bid, so the JAS-39, while pos­si­bly for­mi­da­ble is out­classed in that aspect.

Unfortunately for Saab, the Gripen didn’t actu­al­ly fly and proper “ver­i­fi­ca­tion flights” (though the GlobalEye air­craft were able to) in its time in Finland, lead­ing to snarky media com­men­tary that the Gripen couldn’t fly in the snow. This is, of course, not true. There were stan­dard weath­er con­di­tions for flights, and the snowy con­di­tions did not fit them, so the plane did not fly.

Two more planes remain to be eval­u­at­ed for the HX Challenge, Lockheed Martin’s F‑35A and Boeing’s F/A‑18E/F Super Hornet. The F‑35A’s eval­u­a­tion period is in mid-February. Both have their unique share of advan­tages and dis­ad­van­tages: the Super Hornet will likely be an easy tran­si­tion for the Finnish Air Force, which already oper­at­ed legacy Hornets. But the F‑35A has the advan­tage of low observ­abil­i­ty, advanced datalink sys­tems and it’s onboard opto-elec­tron­ic pack­ages. The F‑35A is rumored to be favored as it’s truly a next-gen­er­a­tion air­craft and has a grow­ing European user com­mu­ni­ty (espe­cial­ly fol­low­ing the Polish pur­chase). But it does come at a higher cost, and seeing how the Polish deal did not include weapons, the over­all cost of an F‑35A pur­chase may be sig­nif­i­cant­ly higher than the Saab or Boeing bun­dles.

Regardless, the HX Challenge is one of the most inter­est­ing com­par­a­tive and trans­par­ent fight­er selec­tion pro­grams in the run­ning, with a wide vari­ety of European and American fight­ers in the run­ning.

Charlie Gao stud­ied polit­i­cal and com­put­er sci­ence at Grinnell College and is a fre­quent com­men­ta­tor on defense and nation­al-secu­ri­ty issues.

The author would like to thank the Corporal Frisk blog for a well-writ­ten and infor­ma­tive first-hand per­spec­tive of the Gripen HX Challenge entry.

Source: National Interest

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