Give Ukraine a Gripen, the F-16 cannot deliver what the Swede can
PANAGYURISHTE, BULGARIA — After the tanks “broke” the red line in the minds of the Allies, it was time to supply fighters. Ukraine needs them to get back in the air. Kyiv prefers American F-16 fighters. However, this aircraft has been developed to counter the MiG-29 since the Cold War era.
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There are other possibilities as well. The French Rafale and the Swedish Gripen. Of these two fighters, Ukraine is more likely to get the Rafale than the Gripen. Stockholm continues to say that Ukraine will not get its Gripens. The Swedish government last confirmed its determination at the end of December last year.
Maybe that’s why Kyiv is pushing to get the F-16 because it’s getting rejected for the Gripens. However, Ukraine needs the Swedish fighter more than the American one.
Fighter jets won’t solve the problem
The war in Ukraine is fought in two domains – land and air. Ukraine completely lost what it had as a navy. Russia uses this to launch missile strikes with its missiles from ships and submarines.
In the air, Russia has superiority at the moment. More aircraft, better than the aging Ukrainian MiG-29s. Only the Ukrainian Su-27 can compete with the Russian fighters, but since the beginning of the war, we have witnessed single air battles. The equipment of air-to-ground missiles to strike beyond visible range is many times more for the Russian fighters.
Neither the F-16 nor the Gripen will solve Ukraine’s main problem – Russian missile attacks. Ukraine needs more air defense systems and missiles for them than fighter jets. Providing fighter jets now to Ukraine, without securing air defenses, simply prolongs the defenders’ agony.
Both fighters are by Western standards. Ukrainian pilots are only familiar with Soviet-designed fighters. The MiG-29 and Su-27 are radically different aircraft, even in their creators’ ideology, compared to the F-16 and Gripen.
Ukrainian Air Force spokesman Mr. Yuriy Ignat said that Ukrainian pilots will need six months [nearly 180 days] to train to fly the F-16. There is no word on how long it will take the same pilots to learn to fly the Gripen.
As with tanks, time is against Ukraine. Let’s not forget something very important – Ukraine will have to remodel or build runways to a standard that can handle the service of one of the two planes. This means construction that can be attacked by Russian bombers or attack aircraft. In such a situation, Kyiv must answer the question very well – will Ukraine’s allies agree to provide runways outside the country’s territory? How will this be interpreted by Moscow?
The Gripen advantage
The Swedish Gripen can solve the previous problem – the construction of new tracks, or the remodeling of existing ones to a new standard. The Swedes designed their fighter to take off and land on shorter runways. Gripen land on a runway 600 meters long and take off on a runway 500 meters long.
It’s a tactic. This fighter can be hidden to take off from trails, roads, and small civilian airfields used for agricultural aerial irrigation. The Swedish Gripen can be hidden in the forest – this is the ideology of its creator. The plane is designed to fight air combat when the country is attacked, so it can be stored for a longer time. The fighter is equipped with canards that create more lift at lower speeds during landing and help increase the angle of attack.
Another advantage over the F-16. The Swedish fighter will participate in battles and suffer damage, instruments, avionics, equipment, and components will need to be serviced. Unlike the F-16, the Gripen does not need a depot where all of this can be serviced.
The design is thought out in a way that allows a mobile team to service the aircraft at any point on the battlefield as long as it is well concealed. The motor is easily separated from the housing for repair. The hatch and loading panel are at one point. I.e. quick and easy loading of new ammunition. It is also very easy to separate the hydraulic lines and gearbox using winches.
According to Swedish pilots and maintenance teams, recruits are trained for 12 months to operate the aircraft. A time that, with the F-16, takes at least 36 months. If it turns out that Ukraine has trained aircrews, even Soviet fighters, they will significantly shorten the training time of maintaining the aircraft.
The ability to use a short runway and the easy maintenance of the Gripen reveals one of the biggest advantages – the tactics of using the aircraft.
Ukraine will be able to build low-altitude air superiority, especially if it deploys several Gripen fighter groups to various agricultural airfields. The low altitude of the flight will allow us to avoid the Russian radars.
All this will allow the Ukrainians to periodically move the deployment of the Gripens. I.e. the same airports will not be used to host them, but they will be used many and often. This will confuse the enemy as he will not have the information he needs to bomb. It will also reduce Russian fighter jet flights, as there will be no information on whether there is a hidden Gripen squadron in the flight area.
Both the F-16 and Gripen are well-armed fighters. Neither has priority. But with the Gripen’s capabilities over the F-16 in the conditions of the war in Ukraine, the Gripen pilots will gain skills and tactical intelligence that will be key to the next operations.
Gripen will not give air superiority over Russian fighters. But it will not allow it to exist in its current form. Russian air presence will be reduced. Therefore, it remains for Ukraine to solve the problem that Gripen cannot – the air defense capability.
The Russian Air Command should be more worried if Sweden gives the “green light” to supply the Gripen than if Washington authorizes the delivery of the F-16. American planes will prolong the agony in the conditions of chaos. The chaos that will be partly caused by the F-16s themselves.
However, the Swedish Gripens will normalize things for Ukraine, build a tactical culture and perhaps for the first time give Ukrainian defenders a breath of fresh air. The Gripens could pave the way for the next phase, which will be a game-changer – strengthening Ukrainian air defenses.
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