|Artist's rendering of a "semi-stealth" Gripen.|
The B-2 "Spirit" stealth bomber, along with the F-22 "Raptor" and F-35 "Lightning II" fighters have continued this trend. Sparing no expense in the quest to become dominant over the modern skies, these aircraft have all had long, expensive, and troubled developments in a quest to bring unquestionable superiority over the enemy... But who's the enemy?
|Russian military "graveyard".|
|China's latest, the J-31.|
|F-15s and F-16s over Iraq.|
Asymmetric Warfare is now the norm. The chances of meeting an enemy over open ground, with roughly similar forces are slim. Indiscriminate IEDs are the enemy's new weapons of choice. So, instead of risking soldiers' lives in high threat areas, we send in the UCAVs.
The UCAV hasn't rendered the manned fighter completely obsolete though, not yet, anyway. They are incapable of defending themselves against enemy aircraft, so enemy airspace must first be cleared. These "rogue nations" usually don't have much of an air defence force, but they do have some. Usually in the form of older MiG-29s or similar Cold War era aircraft. So far, UCAVs can only carry a very light payload, usually limited to short range missiles and light bombs. Newer versions will improve on this, but they are still years away. UAVs have also been susceptible to electronic warfare attacks by more sophisticated opponents.
Obviously, there is still a need for a manned fighter. Both for attacking larger, "hardened" targets and for providing air cover and superiority to allow the UCAVs to do their job. The question is: Which fighter?
|The harsh reality of budget cuts.|
Given the decreased political popularity towards military spending, combined with recent financial "meltdowns", "austerity measures" and "sequestrations"; the trend for the first half of 21st century is very clear: MILITARY BUDGETS WILL BE CUT. Unfortunately, These same military forces will also be tasked with engaging "rogue states" around the world, often with very little preparation time. The next major conflict could be in the Middle East, South East Asia... Anywhere. Devoting a standing force in one area will only weaken response needed for another. This is the reality of warfare in the 21st century. Our armed services will be forced to do more, with less, and do it faster than ever before.
|Reality hits you hard, bro.|
Military spending has its advocates, of course. It creates jobs, and many consider that price should never be an object when comes to keeping us safe. That's all well and good, but by that reasoning, first response services like police, fire, and ambulance should enjoy the same limitless spending. Instead, first responders are often the first services to be cut when budgets need to be slashed. Many departments have to do what they can to ensure the public safety while being understaffed and forced to use old, obsolete equipment, and yet they seem to make do.
So what is a modern military to do? The answer is simple. Don't overbuy. Look hard and long at what requirements are needed. Buy the equipment that fulfills that need, preferably with a little "wiggle room" for future upgrades and enhancements. That equipment should also be affordable to procure, naturally, but also affordable to maintain and use. What isn't needed is the "latest and greatest" just for the sake of keeping up with our neighbours. The days of outspending our enemy into bankruptcy are long gone. To keep spending ridiculous amounts only puts us in danger of spending ourselves into bankruptcy.
|1 hour in the F-35 = 4 hours in a Gripen.|
Cost per flight hour is a big deal. Why? Because it not only determines how much you can actually fly an aircraft given a fixed budget, but it is also determines how sustainable (and vulnerable) that aircraft will be in the future if budgets need to be cut. To give an example, let's look at Australia's F-111 strike bomber:
|Too expensive for "down under", the F-111.|
Despite the F-111's long range, high speed, large payload, and robust airframe, the Australian government decided to retire its F-111 fleet in favour of the slower, shorter ranged, and less heavily armed F-18E/F Super Hornet. Oddly enough, the Australian F-111s were nowhere near the limit to their flight hours, nor were they obsolete or unsafe. No, Australia retired its F-111 fleet because it was simply too expensive to fly, with each hour of flight requiring 180 hours of work done on the ground. The Australian F-111 experience should act as a warning to all modern military forces. Just because you can afford to buy it, doesn't mean you can afford to fly it.
|The F-16. Cheaper when you buy them in bulk!|
Sadly, although the F-35 is touted as the replacement to the F-16, this is not the case. The F-35 lacks the Viper's simple, lightweight design philosophy. Instead, the F-35 is a heavy, complicated machine that is only made affordable due to implied, and possibly forced, economies of scale.
So if the F-35 isn't the new F-16, what is? Not the Super Hornet, it's bigger, more complicated, slower, and more expensive to run (see the Jane's chart above). Nor is the Rafale or Typhoon, which are arguably better aircraft than the F-16, but far more expensive. No, the aircraft most likely to beat the F-16 at its own game is the Saab JAS-39 Gripen.
|Hungarian Gripens, possibly bought at a Costco.|
Despite the Gripen's low cost, it is still a very capable airplane. Seen by many as the equal, if not superior aircraft to the American F-16, the Gripen has the additional benefit of being cheaper to fly and easier to service. It also has the benefit of being able to operate from unprepared runways. If that wasn't enough, the Gripen is also incredibly deployable, requiring only a single C-130 Hercules to carry the supplies needed to support 10 Gripens for a 4 week deployment, with plenty of room to spare.
|The Gripen F demonstrator: More power, same low cost.|
|Proposed "Sea Gripen" design.|
|Artists rendering of a Gripen with CFTs.|
One of the Gripen's biggest selling points is its "open source" flight software. Unlike proprietary U.S. flight software, the end user can modify, update, and upgrade the Gripen's software however they see fit, tweaking it to fit their needs. On the contrary, U.S. military aircraft are very "hands off" requiring the need to contract the manufacturer and get permission from the U.S. government for all future upgrades.
In a world of shrinking defence budgets, asymmetric warfare, and global hotspots requiring quick and decisive action taken with little warning or preparation, military powers all over the world are going to be demanding an affordable, capable fighter than can be brought to bear quickly and easily. The Gripen just so happens to fit the bill nicely. It has already enjoyed some modest sales success but the future will likely show an even greater demand. The F-16 is nearing the end of its production. The F-35, once promised to be the F-16 for the future, is swamped with budget overruns, delays, and controversy. Even if it does mature out of its "growing pains" it will still likely be too expensive to fly in a world of military budget cuts.
This leaves us with the Saab Gripen to fill the F-16 proverbial shoes. Smart governments will take a long, hard look and wonder: "Do we really need that zillion-dollar stealth fighter to fight a country that still uses MiG-21s?" "Can our pilots do their job if we cut back training hours to save money?" and more importantly, "What if our fighter is too expensive to risk us finding out it doesn't live to expectations?"
Smarter governments will only need to ask two questions: "When can we buy the Gripen?" and "Can we please start making the Gripen ourselves to help meet demand?"
|A "Stealth Gripen" study.|
Then, there's always the Gripen's possible future...