Modern Day

JAS 39 Gripen: The Swedish Supersonic Marvel

The SAAB JAS 39 Gripen (‘Griffin’) is a Swedish light multi-role fighter aircraft that equips the Flygvapnet (Swedish Air Force) as its primary air-combat strike fighter. It’s also in the inventoriesof a growing number of nations around the world.

In service since the late 1990s, the Gripen has undergone constant upgrades to keep it on the cutting edge of combat aircraft design and continued relevance in the modern age.

New models introduced in 2019 are equipped with a more powerful engine and advanced avionics and are generating much interest from a range of potential customers.

Easily comparable with 4th generation combat aircraft designs around the world, the Gripen program has produced a unique aircraft heavily influenced by Sweden’s particular strategic requirements, and geo-political outlook on the world.

Originally designed to operate solely within the Swedish command structure, later upgrades enabled the JAS 39 to increase its interoperability with NATO air arms, which also made the platform more export-friendly.

The Gripen is an excellent 'low cost' platform that has been extremely popular.
The Gripen is an excellent ‘low-cost’ platform that has been extremely popular.

Contents

Design and Development

Sweden had a national policy of neutrality for much of the 20th century, and this continued into the new millennium until only recently.

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As such, the Swedish government ensured that the majority of its combat equipment was designed and manufactured locally and that such equipment was optimised for service in Sweden’s often harsh environment and topography.

During the Second World War, the neutrality of Sweden was mostly respected by both Allied and Axis powers, and the nation also acted as an occasional go-between the belligerents as well as trading with both sides in some goods and commodities.

The national company SAAB designed and produced its own combat aircraft during this period, and also employed ideas gleaned from crashed or interned aircraft from both sides during the conflict.

SAAB introduced two excellent fighter designs during the Cold War, with the J 35 Draken (Dragon) serving from 1955, and the JA 37 Viggen (Bolt) flying with the Flygvapnet from 1967.

The Swedish Historic flight is a rare sight at RIAT.
The Saab SK-37E Viggen. This aircraft was retired in 2007 and had a long career.

The Viggen in particular was an impressive aircraft, capable of operating from austere airfields and even stretches of the national road system.

Manufactured in four specialised variants for a variety of roles, the Viggen served with distinction for the remainder of the century, but SAAB was designing a new design to replace the JA 37 in Swedish service.

SAAB had aspirations to design and build a true multi-role combat aircraft, and this philosophy heavily influenced the composition and construction of the new aircraft.

Accordingly, the new project was christened the JAS-39 Gripen, with JAS designating its multirole capabilities: Jakt (air-to-air), Attack (air-to-surface) and Spaning (reconnaissance).

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The design program commenced in the late 1970s when Sweden recognised the need to start replacing the J 35 and JA 37 in Flygvapnet service.

The Gripen is a do it all platform. Photo credit - Milan Nykodym CC BY-SA 2.0.
The Gripen is a do it all platform. Photo credit – Milan Nykodym CC BY-SA 2.0.

The Gripen was intended to copy certain features of the Viggen, but was designed to be both smaller in size and exceed the earlier aircraft’s payload/range capacity.

The final design was finalised in the early 1980s, and showcased a single-seat, single-engine delta design with canards and a fly-by-wire control system to enable an unstable flight profile consistent with the airframe design.

In June 1982 the Swedish government signed a contract for 5 prototypes and 30 production aircraft.

Despite crashes of two of the prototypes due to problems with the control systems, procurement continued, with 95 ‘A’ single-seat models and 14 ‘B’ two-seat trainers being purchased for Swedish service.

The first production aircraft entered Flygvapnet squadrons in 1993, and the type was formally introduced into service in 1996.

The ‘A’ and ‘B’ models were superseded by 50 improved ‘C’ single-seaters and 14 ‘D’ twin-seat aircraft early in 2003.

The Gripen utilises a single powerful engine. Photo credit - Stee CC BY-SA 2.0.
The Gripen utilises a single powerful engine. Photo credit – Stee CC BY-SA 2.0.

These new aircraft had an improved power plant, and better equipment for long-range missions including aerial-refuelling capability, but most importantly had modern data links and other avionics improvements which allowed the Gripen to operate alongside NATO forces.

These new capabilities enabled the JAS 39 to compete for foreign procurement orders.

In 2007 a two-seat demonstrator was ordered to test new avionics and engines which became known as the Gripen Demo. Also known as the Gripen NG (Next-Generation), this aircraft became the basis for the ‘E’ single-seat and the ‘F’ two-seater models, which were introduced in service in 2019.

These variants had revised weapon stations, increased fuel capacity and an AESA (Advanced Electronically Scanned Array) radar. These new models have entered service in both Sweden and Brazil, and further orders seem very likely.

Dimensions and Statistics

All figures stated are for the JAS 39 ‘C’ variant.

The Gripen has a height of 4.5 metres (14 feet 9 inches), and length of 14.9 metres (48 feet 11 inches) and a wingspan of 8.4 metres (27 feet 7 inches).

Empty, the aircraft weighs in at 6,600 kilograms (14,991 pounds) and the Maximum Take-Off Weight (MTOW) of the aircraft is 14,000 kilograms (30,865 pounds).

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The JAS 39C has internal tankage capable of holding 3,000 kilograms (790 US gallons) of fuel, and this gives a combat range of 800 kilometres (500 miles) and a ferry range of 3,200 kilometres (2,000 miles).

The JAS 39C showing off its agility. Photo credit - Oleg V. Leyakov CC BY-SA 3.0.
The JAS 39C showing off its agility. Photo credit – Oleg V. Leyakov CC BY-SA 3.0.

This of course can be extended by the employment of drop tanks, or in-flight refuelling.

The ‘C’ model is equipped with a Volvo RM-12 afterburning turbofan (licenced production model of the GE F404-400 engine) which can provide 12,000 pounds of thrust dry, and 18,100 pounds of thrust in afterburner.

This can propel the Gripen to a top speed of Mach 2 (2,100 km/h 1,300 mph) at altitude, and Mach 1.2 (1,470 km/h 913 mph) at sea level.

The airframe is rated to 9G+ for manoeuvring but can sustain an almost unbelievable 12G+ in emergencies.

All single-seat Gripens are fitted with a Mauser BK-27 revolver cannon, which is chambered for 27 mm ammunition, of which 120 rounds are carried.

The airframe has 8 hard points which can carry a maximum of 5,300 kilograms (11,700 pounds) of ordnance.

This load-out can be any combination of air-to-air and air-to-ground missiles including anti-shipping missiles, as well as bombs, rockets, drop tanks and specialised pods for electronic warfare and reconnaissance tasks.

Many nations have acquired the Gripen, including Brazil. Photo credit - Isac Nobrega CC BY 2.0.
Many nations have acquired the Gripen, including Brazil. Photo credit – Isac Nobrega CC BY 2.0.

Both Swedish and NATO munitions can be carried and employed by the JAS 39.

Procurement and Service History

The Flygvapnet was the only operator of the ‘A’ and ‘B’ models of the Gripen, as they were optimised for Swedish use only due to political imperatives of the time.

The ‘C’ and ‘D’ versions introduced in-flight refuelling and NATO-compatible communications avionics and thus were suitable for export and foreign procurement.

Orders were quick to follow, and the following nations operate ‘C’ and ‘D’ models: Czech Republic, Hungary, South Africa and Thailand.

The British Empire Test Pilots’ School (ETPS) students and instructors undertake training with the Swedish Air Force on simulators, then travel to the SAAB aircraft factory and test centre for flight training on a JAS 39D.

The JAS 39 ‘E’ and ‘F’ variants started entering service in 2019, and are equipped with the GE F414 augmented turbofan, AESA radar, and revised airframe improvements boosting fuel capacity and increasing the number and capacity of weapons stations.

The new power plant enables the latest models of the Gripen to ‘supercruise’ (attain supersonic flight without the need for afterburning) with full air-to-air weapons load-out at a speed of Mach 1.2 (1,470 km/h 913 mph).

Gripens being refulled by a KC-130. Photo credit - Milan Nykodym.
Gripens being refuelled by a KC-130. Photo credit – Milan Nykodym.

Both the Flygvapnet and the Brazilian Air Force have ordered this new model, and several other nations are actively considering purchasing the platform in the future.

At the time of writing the Gripen has not been involved in any combat operations, and the type has been involved in 10 aircraft accidents/incidents, with nine of these resulting in hull-loss events and one fatality.

The two accidents involving prototypes occurred before the flight-control system was fully developed, and at least two other incidents have been attributed to bird strikes when operating at a low level.

Further foreign orders for ‘E’ and ‘F’ models are likely to occur, as these new models are the equivalent of a 4.5-generation fighter aircraft.

These new capabilities are attracting much interest from potential customers who are baulking at the extremely high cost of newer 5th-generation stealth aircraft now entering service around the world.

Further development of the Gripen NG is ongoing, with a possible naval variant proposed for carrier operations, and planned new two-seat versions optimised for Electronic Warfare (EW) tasking, along with a Suppression of Enemy Air defences (SEAD) mission role.

As part of design requirements, the Gripen needed to have short take off ability so it can operate from roads.
As part of design requirements, the Gripen needed to have short take-off ability so it can operate from roads.

Conclusion

The latest versions of the JAS 39 Gripen are sophisticated and enormously capable combat aircraft, and the aircraft has an excellent service record with the Flygvapnet and other air corps around the world.

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With high performance and capable avionics, the Gripen is now fully compatible with NATO forces. With Sweden set to enter NATO, further integration will enable the Gripen to increase its interoperability with European air arms and to help face a growing threat from an increasingly desperate Russia.

The SAAB JAS 39 Gripen stands as ready testimony to the excellence of Sweden’s defence industries, by showcasing an agile and deadly light fighter capable of true multi-role tasking.

With further orders very likely, we will see the Gripen soaring in the skies above many nations for some considerable time to come into the future.

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Specifications

  • Crew: 1 JAS 39C / 2 JAS 39D
  • Length: 14.9 m (48 ft 11 in) JAS 39C 15.6 m (51 ft) JAS 39D
  • Wingspan: 8.4 m (27 ft 7 in)
  • Height: 4.5 m (14 ft 9 in)
  • Empty weight: 6,800 kg (14,991 lb)
  • Max takeoff weight: 14,000 kg (30,865 lb)
  • Payload: 5,300 kg (11,700 lb)
  • Powerplant: 1 × Volvo RM12 afterburning turbofan engine, 54 kN (12,000 lbf) thrust dry, 80.5 kN (18,100 lbf) with afterburner
  • Maximum speed: Mach 2 (2,100 km/h; 1,300 mph; 1,100 kn) at 15240m
    • Mach 1.2 (1,470 km/h; 913 mph; 794 kn) at sea level
  • Combat range: 800 km (500 mi, 430 nmi)
  • Service ceiling: 15,240 m (50,000 ft)
  • g limits: +9/−3 (+12 if needed)
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