Gripen taxiing to the short runway at Vidsel (Image © Louise Levin / Försvarsmakten)

Debate started: keep older Swedish Gripen jets flying

A debate has started in Sweden to keep part of the current Gripen C/D fighter fleet of the Swedish Air Force flying, even after the purchase of the new and more capable E/F-model. Target: to safeguard that Sweden is able to protect its borders and economic zone.

The newest contribution to the debate comes from expert Robert Dalsjö of the Royal Swedish Academy for War Sciences. “The Gripen C/D has an average age of seven years and only a handful of planes have flown more than 1,000 hours. Combat aircraft are designed for 8,000 flight hours and in the Western world the are used for up to 30 and 40 years,” Dalsjö writes in the Swedish national daily Svenska Dagbladet.

Roll-out of the new, more capable Gripen E in May 2016 (Image © Saab)
Roll-out of the new, more capable Gripen E in May 2016 (Image © Saab)

Axe the Gripen

Having invested huge in the Gripen C/D Dalsjö argues that it is a wrong burning of money to axe the aircraft already. Sweden officially has 97 Gripen C/Ds on its three main airbases of Ronneby (southeast), Såtenäs (centrewest) and Luleå-Kallax (north) and on maintenance locations, with currently about 87 of them rotating operationally between the units. The Swedish government decided to buy 60 brand-new, larger and more capable Gripen E/F in the near future – with Brazil getting another 36 in cooperation with Brazilian Embraer.

Survive chances

Many in Sweden with insight in the defence world believe the expanded range, heavier payload and newer features of the Gripen will improve the readiness and survive chances of the Swedish Armed Forces, but the number of 60 aircraft is overall considered to low for the vast Scandinavian country. The Swedish Air Force will then have to protect, defend and – if necessary – attack with only max. 15 operational aircraft at its three air bases. The remainder 15 aircraft will be likely be held in reserve.

The low number is seriously going to limit the Swedish reaction in international crises, for example when Russia will increase it already quite visible presence in the Baltic Sea area. During the last century SAAB built 329 Viggen combat aircraft for the Swedish Air Force. Eighty-five of them were fully multirole and were considered the absolute minimum to keep Sweden safe.

Gripen taxiing to the short runway at Vidsel (Image © Louise Levin / Försvarsmakten)
Gripen taxiing to the short runway at Vidsel (Image © Louise Levin / Försvarsmakten)

“Protected” by neighbours

Safety is no longer a post-Cold War luxury. The Swedes need to worry, even when it comes down to being “protected” by its neighbours. The 55 F/A-18s of the neighbouring Finnish Air Force are good, but even when dispersed during a war situation they will likely not be a match to Russian air power.

The same goes for the new Royal Norwegian Air Force F-35A, with only a handful planned to serve as Norway’s own QRA on Eveness Airbase in the north and the main force much further south on Ørland Airbase near Trondheim. Unlike Norway, Sweden is no real NATO member and the future president of the USA might not even consider to come to Sweden’s aid to live up to the military coop and support contracts Stockholm and Washington DC have signed. However, politically Sweden has shown combat aircraft support to especially NATO-neighbour Norway several times the last couple of years during high-profile war games.

A SAAB Gripen armed with the RBS15 long range Air-launched Anti Ship Missile. (Image © SAAB Group)
A SAAB Gripen armed with the RBS15 long range Air-launched Anti Ship Missile. (Image © SAAB Group)

Supporting SAAB

Keeping a mixed fleet of 60 Gripen E/F aircraft and – let’s say – 30 to 60 Gripen C/D seems like a reasonable, future solution for the Swedish Air Force, from both a financial and military-strategical point of view. It will even support Sweden’s indigenous aviation industry of Saab – a reason why Sweden fully chooses the 60 new aircraft – more, with maintenance contracts as well as new-build options for the defence firm based in Linköping.

No follow-on order

Of course at SAAB HQ they are hoping there will be a follow-on order from the Flygvapnet for another 10 to 30 Gripen jets, but that may never come. Cash-aware as Sweden needs to be these days, the Defence is buying new submarines (from SAAB), is in an urgent need for an effective long-range ground-based air-defence system to counter Russian offensive air and the remaining six of originally eight ancient Lockheed C-130 Hercules aircraft are in need of replacement. The new aircraft, which may be the Brazilian Embraer KC-390 will likely have to feature in-flight refuelling as well – currently being provided by the C-130 fleet.

The debate to keep the JAS 39C/D flying for many years to come has just started. Whatever the outcome, many Swedes are increasingly worried by their country’s safety. And that is normally fuel for decision makers to weigh more options.

© 2016 Airheadsfly.com senior contributor Marcel Burger
Featured image: Gripen taxiing to the short runway at Vidsel (Image © Louise Levin / Försvarsmakten)