Ukraine expects Gripen and F-16 fighter jets from Sweden, Netherlands and Poland

A Ukraine Defense Contact Group meeting at Ramstein Air Base in late January 2023 ended inconclusively, with many countries stopping short of promising to deliver new tanks to Ukraine. 

Wopke Hoekstra, Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Netherlands, said that his country is ready to consider with an open mind the eventual delivery of F-16 fighters, if Kyiv asks for it.

During a parliamentary debate on Thursday, Minister of Foreign Affairs Wopke Hoekstra stated that the Cabinet would consider such a request with an open mind. He then stated that there are no taboos on the delivery of regular military equipment, adding that the Netherlands only sends items that Ukraine requests.

The fighters in question would be the F-16A/B MLU fighters that the Royal Netherlands Air Force is gradually replacing with the F-35A, advanced fifth-generation fighters. A dozen of these fighters were purchased by Draken US, one of the private aggressor training companies contracted by the USAF to increase the readiness of its pilots.

This is not the first time there has been talk of these aircraft eventually assisting the Ukrainian war effort. In the past, the Dutch government has evaluated handing over some of its surplus F-16s to a NATO ally, which in turn would cede its MiG-29s to Ukraine. Among the most likely candidates for the swap were Poland (which already operates more advanced versions of the F-16) and Slovakia, which had even negotiated with the Czech Republic and Poland to take over the defense of its airspace, in the eventuality of transferring the Fulcrum to Ukraine. However, there are no clear indications that this scenario has materialized.

Ukraine is discussing with its partners whether the Ukrainian Air Force will receive aircraft or not. The Minister of Defense of Ukraine, Mr. Oleksiy Reznikov, stated that negotiations are underway as to which aircraft platform will be preferred.

Poland and Netherlands agree to donate F-16C/D to Ukraine

At a joint press conference with Polish Defense Minister Mr. Mariusz Blaszak, Mr. Reznikov said that negotiations are currently underway with Western partners aimed at defining a platform for the transfer of tactical aviation to Ukraine. “What it will be – F-16 or Gripen – is a matter of discussions with NATO partners,” Reznikov said.

So far, the Netherlands and Poland have expressed a desire to provide their F-16 fighter jets to Ukraine if Washington gives the “green light” for re-exports. France is also ready to provide its Rafale, but after analyzing three key factors that are at the domestic level of the country.

Meanwhile Sweden is reluctant to provide Gripen fighter jets until the U.S. confirms its intention to allow transfer of its technology to Ukraine. Regardless of what fighter jets are chosen for Ukraine, the U.S. has the final say on either F-16 or Gripen fighter jets.

Poland operates significant numbers of both modernized Soviet-era MiG-29s and relatively modern F-16C/D. Talks about supplying Ukraine with both models have taken place. 

March and April 2022 saw plans for the US to provide Poland with new F-16s in exchange for Polish Air Force MiGs being given to Ukraine. However, the scheme did not work out. 

In the middle of this month, Ukrainian Air Force spokesman Col. Yury Ignat reinforced claims of a possible delivery, saying the issue had always been part of negotiations between Ukraine and partners. “Our military pilots travelled to the United States, funds were allocated for the training of our pilots … That is, the aviation topic has never left the agenda. The type of aircraft that is likely to be provided to Ukraine, and the corresponding terms for training personnel have already been determined,” Colonel Ignat said in January.

On the other hand, the Ukrainian Air Force has been asking its Western allies for months for the transfer of modern fighters, with which to challenge the airspace supremacy currently held by the Russian Su-35, and although certain studies suggested that the best fighters to send to Ukraine would be the Saab Gripen, it is highly probable that Kyiv will formally ask for F-16s from the Netherlands. However, such a transfer has to be authorized by Washington first, as is the case with any US-sourced weapons system.

Saab Gripen for Ukraine

Sweden’s JAS 39 Gripen-C fighter, designed for rugged environments, could help Ukraine stay in the fight.

Tilting the canards sharply allows their use as an airbrake, which combined with skid-resistant landing gears, permits a JAS-39 to land on 600-meter-long runways or highways , fulfilling Bas-90 requirements.

For propulsion, the Gripen used a Volvo RM-12 engine based on the F404 turbofan used on the US Navy’s Hornet jets, with redesigned fan blades to minimize radar reflectivity and birdstrike risks, and restructuring to ease disassembly for maintenance.

At present, the Swedish Air Force is supplementing 84 operational Gripen-C/Ds with 60 heavily modernized Gripen-Es featuring a powerful AESA radar, reduced radar cross-section, extended range, and the more powerful F414 turbofan, allows supersonic cruising.

To cooperate better with Gripen-Es, the C/Ds are being upgraded to the MS20 standard integrating a laser-targeter, a new infrared reconnaissance pod, enhanced Link-16 datalinks to exchange data with friendly forces, and a ground-collision avoidance system reducing accident risks.

While Gripen-C/D can be upgraded to cutting-edge E/F standard, it could help level the playing field in the beyond-visual-range aerial warfare taking place over Ukraine thanks to its better radar and compatibility with the AIM-120 and Meteor long-range missile, all of which have substantially greater reach than radars and missiles on Ukrainian jets.

Furthermore, Gripen’s optimization for operation from dispersed bases and short runways, easy maintainability, and low operating costs make it seemingly tailor-made for Ukraine’s underdog air force.

A Gripen donation still isn’t entirely unthinkable. Sweden is currently donating from its active military some of its most advanced equipment in the form of Archer self-propelled artillery and CV9040C infantry fighting vehicles comparable to US Bradleys but with a bigger 40 mm gun and advanced active protection system.

Stockholm could yet have a change of heart, procuring additional Gripen-Es and passing on Gripen-Cs to Ukraine, especially given security guarantees from the US or its allies. Donating Gripens could also be good for business in the long run if it persuaded Kyiv to procure new Gripen-Es — presumably with foreign financing eventually. Combat experience also proves vital for Gripen sales in the Philippines, Colombia and Thailand.

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