How Sweden is helping Ukraine (Part 1)

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Underside of an armed Gripen in flight Oleg V. Belyakov Sweden Air Force CC BY-SA 3.0

By Russell Bruce

We hear a great deal about the contributions of the US and UK but all EU Nato countries are making considerable contributions and planning for further packages. I will look at two key likely contributions of Sweden in the months ahead. Like other countries including the UK Sweden is supplying a range of military equipment, armaments and financial support to keep Ukraine afloat in its struggle with the most brutal invader of a European country since since Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin.

The determination of Denmark and the Netherlands to supply Ukraine with F16s is well known, with other countries like Romania and Belgium also offering training for Ukrainian pilots. Sweden is considering supplying Ukraine with its Saab JAS 39 Gripen Mach 2 fighter jet. As part of a longer-term package Sweden is also looking to increase the supply of air defence system 70, combat vehicle 90, main battle tank 122 and artillery system Archer to Ukraine.

The two contributions to Ukraine I will cover are the Saab Gripen (translation Griffin) and the interesting Combat Vehicle 90 both of which could make a major difference in giving Ukraine an edge. When it comes to numbers there is greater availability of F16s from countries updating to Lockheed Martin F35s. Biden was pressurized to grant permission for Europe to supply F16s arguing it was a European initiative, after all the conflict is in our backyard.

Sweden is already supplying Ukraine with combat vehicle 90 with many more planned. I will cover these in PART 2.

Denmark and the Netherlands can probably supply about 50 F16s. The US which has 922 F16s is now thought to be also training Ukrainian pilots. Although the number of Saab Gripens Sweden could supply would be much smaller, Zelenskyy, is hoping for 16 to 18, the Gripen has significant advantages in requiring a much shorter runway and has the ability to use roads and other smooth surfaces for take-off and landing.

The longer runways F16s need require Ukraine to extend present runways making them potentially a greater Russian target. So far Ukraine has been adept at keeping its ageing fleet of Soviet age jets relatively safe. Last Wednesday Ukrainian pilots took out the large landing ship Minsk which was destroyed rather than the Russian claim of being ‘damaged’, according to the UK MOD following footage available of the aftermath. Also ‘damaged’ was the diesel-electric submarine Rostov-on-Don. With added extensive infrastructure damage the site will have limited capability to provide maintenance to the Russian fleet in the Black Sea for now. Ten UK Storm Shadow cruise missiles were fired at the Sergo Ordzhonikidze shipyard in Sevastopol.

The lack of air support remains a significant disadvantage to Ukraine despite the recent success of the attack on the Sevastopol shipyard. Gripens, even in the numbers Ukraine is asking for, could make a big difference and also help protect the longer runways the F16s will require. The conflict requires a major increase in the complex jigsaw of cruise missiles, air defence and actual modern flight power to counter Russia’s present advantage.

The short take-off and landing of the Mach2 Gripens would give Ukraine major advantage in siting Gripens from Russian attack. The F16 needs a runway of a minimum 1000 metres for take-off. In practice a significant extension is added of around 60% to cover eventualities.

Gripen taking off from a forest road runway Creative Commons
Gripen taking off from a forest road runway Creative Commons

The Gripen has a minimum take-off distance of 400m and a landing distance of 500m with the ability to use roads with a width of 16m. In practice the Swedes allocate a road length of 800m in tests of road use. In Sweden the siting of Gripens is dispersed around the country to around 30 bases with mobile service teams for servicing, fueling and arming – all delivered by road to each location. The Ukrainians could replicate this dispersal to meet their own requirements with service teams that also need to be trained. Sweden provides the spare parts, equipment and armaments in containers which it attaches to the base used for each location. The other advantage of Gripens is they can be armed with any Nato weaponry allowing considerable flexibility for missions.

Sweden is already training Ukrainians on the Gripen and both the government and the opposition support considering providing Gripens to Ukraine. An analysis of the amount of Gripens Sweden could provide without damaging its own defence capability is due in November. What both Swedish parties are agreed on is that the provision of Gripens to Ukraine should be conditional in moving forward Sweden’s application to join NATO which has yet to obtain the universal approval of NATO members.

Why has Sweden such a sizable defence sector?

The simple answer is their long held position on neutrality until their recent decision to join NATO as a result of the Ukraine war and an increasingly unpredictable Putin. Neutral countries can not rely on NATO countries in the event of an attack which underlines Sweden’s decades long commitment to defence. Although unlike Finland and Norway, Sweden does not share a border with Russia it was not far from the reach of Russia during the cold war. Twenty-nine European states are members of NATO. The other two are the US and Canada, Finland was the most recent to join on April 4th 2023. As of July this year all members ratified Sweden’s accession protocol except Hungary and Turkey. Both committed to complete their approval by this October. We will see.

Three Gripens of the Czech Air Force © Milan Nykodym, Czech Republic Creative Commons CC BY-SA 2.0

When could Ukraine get Gripins?

There is no certainty but lets say there are promising signs given the process Sweden has set out. Ukrainian pilots have completed training in flying Gripens. We understand the next stage of the process is combat training in the weeks/months ahead. If delivery goes ahead then it is towards end of this year or early 2024 realistically. It is probable any delivery would be around the time the first F16s were also delivered. Ukraine having much improved air cover in the coming winter months would be a significant advantage when Russian ground troops are bogged down in defensive positions with declining morale.