October 16, 2004
Thailand announced a plan to buy as many as 20 Gripen fighters at a price of only $14 million each. This is a mutually beneficial deal. For Thailand, the new fighters come at a bargain price South Africa is paying $54 million each for 28 Gripens.
The Gripen is Swedens entry into the high-performance fighter market. It uses a single American F404 turbofan engine (also used by American fighters) for propulsion, and the dimensions are very similar to those of the stillborn American F-20 Tigershark of the late 1980s. Gripen has a top speed of Mach 2, and a radius of action of 800 kilometers. Gripen has not fared well in the export market. A Czech purchase of 24 Gripens for $83 million each was cancelled in 2002. Poland had considered Gripen, but instead went with the cheaper F-16. The Czech Republic is looking at buying used F-16s as well. Saab, and Sweden, were desperate for a deal for the Gripen. Thailand, which is looking to replace a number of its F-5E fighters, wanted a new high-performance fighter.
The major competitor to the Gripen was the Su-30 multi-role Flanker from Sukhoi. The Russian plane lost because the Russian offer was about $34 million for each of at least six Su-30s. The Swedes offered a much better deal, more planes for about the same price. The Swedes also indicated the willingness to accept Thai agricultural products in exchange for the Gripens (call it an example of creative funding).
The Gripen is a capable aircraft, not stealthy, but it has some signature reduction. It is comparable to the F-16C, and can carry many of the same weapons (AMRAAM, Sidewinder, and Maverick). Unlike the F-16, it can also carry an anti-ship missile, Swedens RBS 15. The RBS 15s newest version has a range of 200 kilometers, and can use a variety of attack profiles. With Thailands force of 52 F-16s (36 F-16 Block 15 OCU and 16 F-16 ADFs), the only real new purchases will be the RBS 15 missiles. Gripen is a capable multi-role tactical fighter, and is viable in the modern world. Its biggest handicap against the F-16 is its lack of a combat record to show that it is a good plane. This is not a small matter people want to know if a warplane can do its job. Since Sweden isnt getting into fights, its planes do not rack up the performance that would convince someone to buy it when they can buy a combat-proven design for a similar price. Gripen will probably not get many orders, but through no fault of its own. Harold C. Hutchison