The Swedish government is reportedly considering donating a number of JAS 39 Gripen fighters to Ukraine as that country continues to defend itself against Russia’s all-out invasion. This follows news earlier in the summer that the Swedish authorities had agreed to provide Ukrainian fighter pilots and ground personnel with training on the type, reflecting Sweden’s interest in selling or otherwise donating the jets and also Kyiv’s possible interest in acquiring them.
Swedish public radio (SR) first reported the possibility on September 12, citing unnamed sources. According to SR, the government may ask the country’s armed forces later this week whether it will be possible to transfer an as yet unspecified number of Gripens to Ukraine.
Officials are seeking clarification on how a transfer of Gripens may affect Sweden’s ability to defend itself, and how quickly the aircraft could be replaced with new ones, SR reports. The outlet suggests that Kyiv is looking to receive a division of Gripen fighters, produced by the Swedish manufacturer Saab, which equates to between 16-18 airframes. Gripens to be donated from Sweden would be of the JAS 39C/D version, with the new-generation Gripen E not yet operational with the Swedish Air Force. You can read more about Gripen E in this past War Zone feature.
While the involvement of the country’s armed forces in this decision may be imminent, the actual implementation of any possible transfer will take much longer to realize, SR indicates. Once informed, the armed forces would have until early November to conduct an investigation into such a plan’s feasibility. From there, the government and parliament would need to vote on any decision formally. The earliest that Swedish Gripen jets could be flying over Ukraine, even in a very limited capacity, would be the summer of 2024, the outlet states, although this would also depend upon the progress made in pilot and maintainer training.
Up to this point, Sweden has only committed to "providing orientation training for Ukrainian pilots and associated aeronautical personnel on the JAS 39 [Gripen]." This was announced by the Swedish Regeringskansliet, or Government Office — the country's top executive authority — in June. As The War Zone highlighted at the time, it was unclear exactly how substantial that training would be, or whether it would lead to actual deliveries of the fighters. However, according to SR, a potential armed forces investigation into a Gripen transfer would look into how Ukrainian pilots, mechanics, and other staff would be trained to fly and operate the planes — suggesting a possible increased level of training.
"Another option, and possibly the best of all, would be Sweden's surplus JAS 39C/D Gripen multi-role fighters. These light-to-medium weight fighters are built with great efficiency and reliability in mind. They were designed to be turned around in the bush by tiny teams of mainly conscripted groundcrew and flown from roadways and rough fields during wartime. Distributed operations under very harsh sustained wartime conditions, especially in the cold, are literally what the design is all about."
"Their single F404-derivative engine (license-built by Volvo) drinks comparatively small amounts of fuel compared to the other options and the type has a wide array of available armory from multiple nations. It has all-around good performance, modern radar and avionics, and is small in size, making it hard to spot visually."
"The Gripen really is well suited for the current combat doctrine Ukraine is using in Ukraine today, although the fact that it is a Swedish design makes it a bit harder for the U.S. and NATO to supply and support it. Still, other NATO members operate the type. There is also the question of how many Swedish Gripens will be able to give up at this time."
The influential Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) also shares a similar assessment. But there has long been a lack of clarity over where these jets would come from. F-16s, on the other hand, are far easier to source. But if Sweden were willing to transfer some of their fleet, it would answer that critical question.
Significantly, Gripens have the ability to fire MBDA’s Meteor beyond-visual-range air-to-air missile, which would be a huge deal for Ukraine. They would give Ukrainian pilots access to the longest-range air-to-air missile weapon currently available to NATO, providing them with an advantage when taking on Russian aircraft, many of which are keeping their distance from the front. Ukrainian fighters are as well, aside from very low-level operations. This is due to the dense ground-based air defense overlays that extend deep into each sides' territory. Meteor would allow Ukrainian pilots to standoff at greater distances while still being able to engage Russian aircraft.
Meteor features an impressive propulsion system comprising a solid fuel, variable flow, ducted rocket instead of a traditional rocket motor. As we've highlighted before, this means Meteor can throttle its engine at different phases of flight, compared to rockets which deliver all their energy in a continuous unmodulated burn cycle. This can also mean better end-game kinetic performance, which makes it harder for any target to evade being shot down.
However, there are a number of obstacles that could undo any potential Gripen transfer to Ukraine by Sweden. Domestically, concerns have been raised by senior Swedish government officials due to the current number of Gripens in service. The Swedish Air Force has around 94 Gripen C/D variants and, despite the looming arrival of the Gripen E, the service plans to keep the C/Ds in operation past 2030 to help streamline the introduction of the new jets and to meet the growing Russian threat. It's that same threat that could make it hard for Sweden to release any airframes at all.
As the Swedish Minister of Defense Pal Jonsson indicated back in May, as the Associated Press reported: “We need them [Gripens] for the defense of our territory right now, but we are opening up for letting the Ukrainians test the Gripen… That is in line with what other countries are doing.” In light of the number of Gripens in service, it’s possible that the Swedish armed forces may recommend not to transfer the aircraft to Ukraine, or, as mentioned above, such a decision may be voted down within the Swedish parliament.
Beyond this, there are other factors at play that could well have an impact. Due to the aircraft’s single F404-derivative engine — as well as other onboard equipment — being of U.S. origin, they are subject to U.S. export controls. Congressional approval for the transfer of the aircraft would be needed, although this should not be an issue considering the U.S. has approved F-16s for Ukraine.
In late August, a multinational effort to supply Ukraine with F-16 jets came together, with NATO member states the Netherlands and Denmark pledging to send dozens of those aircraft to the country. This commitment relied heavily on U.S. approval. The decision to furnish Ukraine with F-16s came after an agreement by a number of NATO nations to establish F-16 training centers for Ukrainian pilots in Denmark and Romania, as part of a multinational coalition. It remains to be seen how, if Ukraine also receives a number of Swedish Gripens, it will handle the logistical complications of operating a mixed fleet of Western fighters.
Then again, Ukraine is no stranger to these burdens, as the country currently operates the most diverse fleet of combat vehicles on the planet that has been sourced from all over the world. There have been multiple indications that top Ukrainian officials want as many fighters as possible, even if that means multiple types.
What Gripen doesn't offer that the F-16 does is the massive support and training ecosystems that have evolved over the years to support Vipers in Europe and around the globe. It is the most prolific Western fighter in operation today, and with that comes robust infrastructure in every regard. Still, Sweden would likely be able to step up to meet the needs of Ukraine's fleet, just as it has for other customers of the JAS 39. There is also a major potential customer aspect to this, as well. If Ukraine likes the JAS 39, it could very well order Gripen-Es. The future Ukrainian Air Force could be rife with lucrative business opportunities. This is not lost on any major weapons manufacturer and especially the fighter builders. Whoever gets integrated into its operations now is likely to be around later on when the country is a paying customer.
Sweden is poised to join the NATO alliance, with the country recently announcing its intention to increase its defense budget by 28%, thus putting it on course to reach the military spending target of 2% of gross domestic product for countries within NATO. Last month, Sweden’s opposition leader stated that the country should send Gripen fighter jets to Ukraine once member-states Turkey and Hungary ratify its membership. Sweden is already part of the Nordic air defense alliance, unveiled earlier this year, which builds on "already-known NATO methodology."
Sweden’s NATO membership status aside, it seems increasingly possible, even if still not probable, that Ukraine could receive Gripen to go along with its Vipers. This would not only really set Ukraine up with very potent and resilient fighter capabilities, but it would also set the stage for a very unique comparison between two competing jets in the world's harshest operational environment.
Author's note: Tyler Rogoway contributed to the technical aspects of this report.
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