The Swedish Gripen E and American F-35A are the only two Western single engine fighters both in production and on order by their producing countries, and were the two frontrunners to supply the Royal Canadian Air Force with a new generation of aircraft to replace its ageing CF-18A/B jets. Both the Gripen and the F-35 have a great deal in common, including being designed to prioritise low costs both to produce and to operate relative to other aircraft of their generations, and having somewhat unremarkable flight performances but focusing on advanced avionics and beyond visual range capabilities. There is also a great deal to distinguish them, most notably that the F-35 is a fifth generation fighter while the Gripen E is a modernisation of the fourth generation Gripen and is considered a ‘4+ generation’ design. Where the F-35 was developed under the world’s largest weapons program, and it is expected that over 2000 will be built despite possible deep cuts, the Gripen E is unlikely to see more than 200 airframes built with limited orders from the Swedish Air Force and only one success on export markets.
The F-35 was developed as part of an international project involving eight program partners, while the Gripen was developed by Sweden but heavily dependant on imported components to compensate for the limitations of the small European country’s industrial base and defence sector. The Gripen’s most complex inputs are largely of foreign origin, including an American F414 engine and a sensor suite and Meteor long range air to air missiles sourced from elsewhere in Europe. While both the F-35 and Gripen are single engine fighters, the two are at opposite ends of the spectrum with the F-35 being approximately twice as heavy and its F135 engine having over three times the thrust of the Gripen’s F414. The American fighter’s most notable strength is its radar evading stealth profile, which significantly improves survivability against both ground based air defences and enemy aircraft, while the Gripen’s radar cross section although small by fourth generation standards still leaves it far more vulnerable.
A key advantage of the F-35 is that as part of a far larger program it is not only produced on a far bigger scale, making it more cost effective due to economies of scale particularly considering the very small production lines for the Gripen and other European jets. The larger size of the program also ensures much more investment in research and development to continue to modernise the design likely past the middle fo the century, where Sweden’s ability to continue to provide upgrades for the Gripen remains highly questionable particularly as the aircraft is expected to be phased out of service much sooner in the Swedish Air Force than the F-35 is in the U.S. The F-35 also has the advantage of being much more widely used making spare parts readily available from allies, where the Gripen remains relatively rare and could be far more difficult to obtain parts for.
Despite being part of a much more modest program, the Gripen retains a number of important advantages over the F-35. With the Gripen A/B having entered service in 1996, the Gripen E is based on a thoroughly tested airframe and is considered fully combat ready. The F-35 by contrast has over 800 performance issues with progress made towards solving them having been very slow. Where the Gripen is fully operational and well suited to fighting at any time, the F-35 is still limited to an initial operating capability and is poorly suited to even medium intensity combat – with the Pentagon as a result consistently refusing to approve the fighter for mass production every year.
The F-35’s maintenance requirements remain very high for a single engine fighter and its availability rates low, where the Gripen is prized for its unrivalled ease of maintenance among Western fighters meaning a far larger proportion of a Gripen fleet can be kept combat ready at any time compared to an equivalent F-35 fleet. This is largely a result of its size, as while the American F-16 is considered a standard lightweight the Gripen is considered a ‘very light’ aircraft comparable to the cancelled American F-20 or the Chinese JF-17. While the Gripen’s small scale of production means it is not being marketed at a significantly lower price than the F-35, its operational costs are very significantly lower meaning over its lifetime a Gripen squadron will cost several billion dollars less than an F-35 squadron of the same size – depending on how frequently they fly. This could also result in Gripen pilots having more time in the air than those of the F-35.
The Gripen E’s flight performance, although far from outstanding, is considerably superior to that of the original Gripen and notably includes a supercruise capability – the ability to fly for sustained periods at supersonic speeds without using and engine afterburner. Although supercruise was previously considered a prerequisite for a fighter to be classified as fifth generation, this was later removed from American definitions due largely to the F-35’s lack of this capability. The issue of speed is more serious for the F-35B and F-35C variants which cannot fly supersonically. The Gripen E’s avionics and electronic warfare systems are considered the most advanced outside the United States and China and on par with fifth generation fighters, meaning despite its lack of stealth it can in some respects pose a comparable threat to the F-35. The fighter carries six air to air missiles in standard configuration much as the F-35A does, but notably benefits from integration of the Meteor missile which is considered comfortably superior to the F-35’s AIM-120D with ramjet propulsion, a much longer range and a more sophisticated radar seeker being important advantages. The Gripen also has the advantage of being able to land on makeshift runways including on regular traffic highways, where the F-35A needs pristine airfields to operate from, which is potentially highly valuable in a major war where airfields come under attack. A further important advantage for the Gripen is the greater independence its operators are granted, with the F-35 by contrast not only known to have spied on its operators and send data back to the United States, but also heavily reliant on codes provided by the U.S.
The Gripen ultimately retains a number of strengths over the F-35, the most notable being its very low maintenance requirements and operational costs, but has nevertheless failed to compete against it on export markets due largely to the disadvantages inherent to the small size of the program, the F-35’s much lower cost relative to its weight, and the Swedish jet’s lack of stealth capabilities. While the Gripen E may well be the most promising and cost effective Western fighter outside the United States, its successes on export markets have been limited with the loss of a potential Canadian contract potentially marking a turning point from which the program is unlikely to retire. Political factors including Sweden’s lack of overseas military presences or other tools for exerting pressure, where the U.S. and France by contrast have applied tremendous pressure and lobbied hard to sell their fighters abroad, is also thought to have played an important role.