Saab Gripen - The Independent Choice
IntroductionA certain Von Clausewitz, a Prussian soldier, historian and author of books on military strategy, is famous for his quote that "war is a continuation of politics by other means".
One could also say that the political will to devote a large part of the peacetime economic profits of its country to the preparation of war (and/or defence) will largely determine the outcome of that war. Indeed, while it would be an overstatement to say that economy is the only reason for war it is definitely true that economy, national defence and warfare are closely entangled.
The '91 Iraq war demonstrated that in our highly technological world the sheer numbers of soldiers (no matter how brave) do not count that much anymore; it’s the equipment that they have at their disposal that makes the real difference.
You could say that this is nothing new. Throughout history, better organisation and/or weaponry has often determined the outcome of war. However, in the last century or so this has escalated to the current intense, and highly expensive, arms race which requires vast funding from the peacetime economy.
This is very obvious in the field of modern fighter planes.
The development of a new fighter is a highly complex project involving many companies, and requiring forefront research employing hundreds of scientists and engineers. No one company, or consortium, can take such huge financial risks without the strong support, and a guaranteed market, of its local government.
It's therefore no surprise that the most advanced fighter planes are designed in countries with a very strong economy and the political determination to defend their interests by all means, including military action. Smaller and/or poorer countries are largely dependent on these superpowers for their air force equipment.
Sweden, an exception to the rule.Sweden is a rather wealthy Scandinavian country with one of the best social welfare systems in the world. It values neutrality very highly and has very strict regulations on the production and export of weaponry. Definitely not the type of country you would expect to invest billions in a fourth generation fighter plane.
However, with the Gripen, that is exactly what it has done. A consortium led by Saab, the car and airplane manufacturer, has produced the first fourth generation fighter jet. A feat which seems to be the direct result of down to earth research & development practices which are all too often absent in over-ambitious military product development.
Saab has listened very well to the Swedish Air Force which wanted an agile fighter to defend the homeland, able to operate from improvised landing strips and, above all, affordable by the Swedish taxpayer.
Cost and performanceCost control is probably the reason why the Gripen, against modern trends, only has one engine (a jet engine comes at +/- 5 million dollar a piece). The challenge was to build a single engine fighter with similar performance as it's much more powerful, double engined, competitors. The manufacturer claims that maintenance costs are 50% smaller than its competitors. Considering that for some modern fighters, each hour in the air is costing 30 (or more) hours of maintenance this is an important sales factor.
The design is, with its canards, similar to the one of the Rafale and Typhoon Eurofighter but the Gripen is much smaller and lighter. So small that the internal fuel capacity seems limited and it is very hard to spot a Gripen without centreline external fuel tank.
It would however be wrong thinking that the Gripen performance would be bad.
It is a very agile aircraft with very sophisticated electronic suites integrated. Saab is promoting the Gripen as part of an "integrated net-centric" package which seems to be quite appealing to some countries. There are claims that the networking standard used in this package is outperforming the equipment built on basis of the NATO link-16 standard.
Export strategyBut a few hundred planes for the Swedish Air Force are insufficient to justify, and pay for, such an undertaking. Hence, like any other manufacturer, Saab is trying to sell its fighter across the globe… and this with remarkable success.
The Gripen consortium is promoting its fighter by emphasising not only its technical and military merits, but mostly by referring to its economic benefits and the unique political stance of the Swedish government. It can't be described better than by quoting a recent advertisement published in prominent air force related magazines:
As a military non-aligned nation, Sweden understands better than anyone the necessity of an independent and autonomous air force. The Gripen fighter, created by Saab, is the defining example of Sweden's long history of military independence.
In an uncertain world you need partners that understand your situation and definitively deliver what you, and your nation, needs. Gripen's unique, independent origins give us the insight that others fail to gain, the absolute requirement for partnership based on common ground, mutual understanding and long-term commitment.
Full customer insight into all levels of aircraft technology as well as unrivalled technological and knowledge transfer, allow Gripen's customer nations to enjoy full control and autonomy over their air force and their future as a nation.
The independent choice for an independent future.
One of the big advantages of the Gripen is that it already exists with full operational status, that potential clients (who meet the conditions for armament deals set by the Swedish government) can actually see it flying, and get a very realistic view of costs and performance.
Saab also demonstrates that it is able to upgrade existing planes (Swedish Gripen A have been upgraded to C standard) and integrate weapon systems demanded by customers.
Moreover, the Gripen consortium has a very active policy of turning clients [e.g. India, Brazil] into partners with extensive programs of industrial cooperation and technology transfer. It looks as if Gripen is gradually building a group of partner countries which could, in the long run, share the cost of developing a next (5th?) generation fighter plane.
The Gripen's future?The long term development roadmap should lead to the Gripen NG. Saab is actively promoting this concept to potential clients of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF).
The JSF seems like a complete contrast to the Gripen. It's designed to be a fifth generation fighter available in a common, a STOVL and a Carrier based version. It is primarily US designed but the costs are shared with a number of nations who hope to gain technological knowledge, economic benefits once the plane is mass produced, and a state of the art replacement for their aging fighter fleet.
Those nations have been confronted with escalating costs, increasing delays and a US "partner" unwilling to share with them the technology developed under the Joint Strike Fighter program.
All this could be wiped off the table in the case of a clear military need justifying the F-35 and its multi-billion dollar research program. Against a background of a world wide financial crisis, several analysts are questioning the need for fifth generation super technology while the current F-15 led generation has never been beaten in combat.
Countries like Norway and The Netherlands, have recently confirmed their commitment to the JSF, but seem to continue paying attention to the Gripen NG demonstrator plane.
It is actually very difficult to find out what the real fly-away cost is of a modern fighter plane. Nobody involved in the complex deals (which usually include aspects like training, technology transfer, and economical compensations) has an interest in being transparent about this.
It seems that a realistic price tag for a Gripen C is around 70 million dollar (tax included). I emphasise "it seems" because I could, despite my efforts, not find a clear cut answer as to what the cost of such thing really is. There is a cloud of mystery around military deals which makes it very difficult to find hard facts.
If the Gripen NG would come to the market for twice this amount then it would still be a bargain compared to the excessive prices currently quoted for the F-35 (+260 million dollars a piece for the first batches).
If the Gripen (or one of its competitors: Typhoon or Rafale) would succeed eroding the customer base of the F-35 then this could have a devastating effect on the whole JSF programme as this would make the price per plane further escalate.
Or, how even independence is relative…
In any case, if homeland defence is your objective, and you can't wait until the day that JSF promises turn into operational reality, or if its forefront R&D is simply to expensive (or unnecessary), then the Gripen might just be the plane that you are looking for.
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