It is almost 10 years since Saab and British Aerospace signed a teaming agreement to develop the Swedish air force's JAS39 Gripen multirole fighter for the export market, and their joint vision has begun to pay dividends in terms of market success.

Intended to fill the gap between the UK company's Hawk trainer and the four-nation Eurofighter, the export-standard Gripen was conceived in 1995, four years after Saab began approaching potential partners to participate on the replacement for its JA37 Viggen. So strong was BAe's interest in the programme that it bought a 35% stake in Saab in 1998 - a holding retained today by BAE Systems.

With the first export success already under their belts after South Africa ordered 19 single- and nine two-seat Gripens in 1999, the partners in 2001 established a joint entity tasked with selling 200 aircraft on the international stage by late next decade. These are in addition to an existing order for 204 JAS39s across three production batches for the Swedish air force.

Now in existence for more than two years, the Saab/BAE joint-venture Gripen International is close to receiving the green light to deliver 14 export-standard fighters to the Czech Republic. Involving aircraft drawn from Swedish air force stocks, the deal has been brokered by Sweden's Defence Materiel Administration FMV, which previously agreed a similar 14-aircraft package with Hungary. Part of a 40-aircraft stockpile freed up by Sweden's reassessment of its future military equipment needs, the aircraft will be accompanied by associated industrial offset packages created and delivered by Gripen International.

Hungary snapped up 14 surplus JAS39A/B fighter/trainers in 2001, but later modified its contract to 12 NATO-standard JAS39C single-seaters and two JAS39D two-seaters. The first aircraft will be delivered in early 2006, and a follow-on order could come if Hungary accepts a suggestion that it also provide air-defence services for neighbouring Slovenia.

"It has taken two years, but now we are ready for the market," says Gripen International. The company made its Middle East debut at last December's Dubai air show, and will later this month make its first foray into Asia by participating in the Asian Aerospace 2004 exhibition in Singapore.

Gripen International is already active in South America, where it is contesting the Brazilian air force's F-X BR fighter competition. The air force submitted its recommendations last December, and a government decision is expected in the first half of this year. Brazil's initial requirement is for 12 fighters, but additional batches could expand this number by 40-60 aircraft. The Gripen faces competition from the Dassault/Embraer Mirage 2000BR, Sukhoi/Avibras Su-35 and Lockheed Martin F-16. If selected, Gripen International hopes to work closely with Brazilian industry, including Embraer, during the manufacture and support of its aircraft.

Industrial partnerships and offsets have proved a key factor in earlier contests involving the Gripen, and remain of great benefit to both the customer nation and the parent companies, says Saab Aerosystems senior vice-president and general manager Lennart Sindahl. "South Africa is happy with our offsets, and we are definitely happy. It's a win-win situation," he says. Increased access to the South African market recently saw Saab take a 21% stake in electronic warfare house Grintek. "If we weren't in the market [in South Africa], we would not have known about their potential," says Sindahl.

"It's a lifetime relationship," says Gripen International, stressing its long-term commitment to supporting its overseas customers and their national industries. "They have to believe that we will be there for 30-40 years." To do this, the company's lean operation - it employs just 55 staff - is moving towards that of a project management organisation.

Although final contract negotiations for the five- or 10-year lease of 12 single- and two two-seat C/D aircraft are unlikely to conclude until April, the Czech air force is set to become the first operator outside Sweden to take delivery of the Gripen. And in a key development for the programme, the Czech Republic will also become the first NATO member state to field the multirole aircraft, which will replace its MiG-21 interceptors. "We are sure that the Czechs will have the best NATO fighter in May 2005, mainly for air-defence duties," says Gripen International. If concluded, the deal could be expanded to include the delivery of more new-build aircraft to meet the Czech Republic's future fighter requirements.

Sweden could be poised to add to the 40 aircraft deemed surplus to requirements through an ongoing defence review. To be made public in December, the results of this assessment could reduce air force strength from the eight frontline fighter squadrons previously planned - itself a reduction from an original12.

Launched in 1982, the Gripen programme had by January 2004 delivered 137 aircraft to five operational squadrons, with over 42,000 flying hours amassed. The air force's C/D-standard Gripen is in its final phase of flight test; a process funded jointly by Saab, BAE Systems and the Swedish government. The new aircraft has colour cockpit displays with English language features, a retractable in-flight refuelling probe and an increased maximum take-off weight of around 14,000kg (30,000lb). Assigned to the air force's F7 wing at Satenas air base, the first squadron to field the enhanced aircraft will receive its first examples by mid-year.

Gripen International officials have long talked of the aircraft having a window of opportunity before the availability of Lockheed Martin's F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, and this appears to have widened with the recent talk of delays to the USA's successor to the F-16. Expected rivalry from other European fighters has also been slow to materialise. "We have been a little bit surprised," says Saab's Sindahl, adding: "Where are the competitors? Typhoon and Rafale are not out there yet." On life-cycle costs, Gripen International says: "We're 50% cheaper than the others, and the Swedish air force can prove it".

Gripen International views its aircraft as a natural replacement for the F-16, Mirage and Northrop F-5, as well as outdated Soviet-sourced fighters. This could, it believes, open the door for future sales to countries like India, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand and several Middle Eastern states. Shorter-term there are opportunities in Europe, including Switzerland's emerging contest for up to 20 fighters - where the Gripen could face competition from its BAE Systems' stablemate the Eurofighter Typhoon. The Czech Republic's Gripen selection also makes it "a logical step" for the country's neighbour and NATO invitee Slovakia to acquire a number of the aircraft, believes Gripen International.

Belgium, Denmark and Norway - all operators of the mid-life update standard F-16AM/BM - are also viewed as potential clients, should those countries' dissatisfaction with the industrial benefits of the US-led JSF programme gain momentum.

Potential buyers of the Gripen are given the opportunity to buy US or European armaments, or to go a "third way", by acquiring weaponry from other sources such as Brazil, Israel, Russia and South Africa. The last of these will this year finalise its selection of a weapons package for its Gripens, which is expected to include the indigenous Denel R-Darter beyond-visual-range air-to-air missile (BVRAAM). South Africa's first aircraft will be handed over in 2006, with full-rate deliveries to start the following year.

The Swedish air force's operational test and evaluation squadron late last year staged trials with GBU-series laser-guided bombs and unguided ordnance, while the Gripen also demonstrated its ability to carry two Taurus Systems KEPD-350 stand-off missiles. Current weapons-clearance activities include tests with the Swedish RBS15 anti-ship missile and Israeli Litening III targeting pod, and work will continue early this year to approve two new weapons selected by the Hungarian defence ministry: Raytheon's AIM-120C5 AMRAAM air-to-air and AGM-65G Maverick air-to-surface missiles.

Saab is also conducting initial work with a helmet-mounted display for the South African Air Force, and this will assist the future integration of BGT's IRIS-T short-range air-to-air missile. The JAS39 has also been selected as the lead platform for firing trials of MBDA's Meteor BVRAAM from next year. Initial firings will take place at Sweden's Vidsel test range, before launches in 2008-9 against fast-moving and agile targets off Scotland.

Introduction of the C/D-standard Gripen does not mark the end of development work on the aircraft, says Saab, which is investing its own money to study ways of increasing the fighter's range. Rejecting the trend among fighter manufacturers to add conformal fuel tanks to aircraft, the manufacturer says range increases could be achieved through improvements to the Gripen's Volvo Aero RM12 engine, or by adding more fuel internally through improvements in manufacturing techniques. Saab says it needs one or two customers to request such enhancements before fully pursuing them.

"We have some solutions, but haven't seen anyone who wants to pay for them yet," Saab says.

Further growth options include the potential to uprate the RM12 and to develop the two-seat JAS39D as a command and control platform, acting as a flight leader for a number of fighters or unmanned combat air vehicles. The Gripen could also be made available at a down-rated specification to serve as an advanced jet trainer, possibly through the proposed 12-nation Advanced European Jet Pilot Training programme, says Saab.

A firm supporter of the Gripen programme, the Swedish air force continues to show interest in several proposed enhancements. "One or two areas will materialise in the near future where the air force will take the lead, but other customers will follow," says Saab. The most likely near-term initiatives centre on the introduction of additional weapon types and enhanced electronic-warfare equipment, such as towed decoys, it says.

It is still early days, but Gripen International has made a solid start on the export stage. A positive conclusion to negotiations with the Czech government will see the Saab/BAE joint venture more than a quarter of the way to its sales goal. But success in Brazil, where the Gripen is reportedly running a close second to the Su-35, would bring real cause for celebration.

TABLE: Gripen sales by country and version












Total fleet reduced to 160

South Africa





Deliveries start August 2006






Deliveries start early 2006

Czech Republic





Deliveries start May 2005*

*Awaiting final contract approval

Source: Flight International