The Swedish Saab JAS-39 Gripen fighter jet has made a name for itself in the international market. It may even be the world’s best non-stealth fighter jet. However, the Gripen has been engulfed in controversies somehow hitting Saab’s global reputation.
The Saab JAS-39 Gripen is a compact, versatile, single-engine fighter that runs on a Volvo-Flygmotor RM12 engine. The aircraft was the outcome of a joint development project undertaken by Aerotech Telub, Ericsson Microwave Systems, Saab Military Aircraft, and Volvo Aero Corporation.
This fourth-generation fighter was originally developed in the 1980s to serve as a relatively cheaper, easy-to-maintain aircraft capable of fighting off any potential threat. Unsurprisingly, the jet primarily caters to nations that are on the lookout for affordable, yet lethal warplanes.
The fighter is known for being pilot-friendly. It has a comparatively simple interface with “easy-to-grasp” displays. The fact that the Gripen was the first fighter which carried the deadly Meteor air-to-air missile (AAM) is a testament to the jet’s lethality.
This Beyond Visual Range (BVR) munition is able to track and destroy targets within a range of close to 130 kilometers. While the Gripen’s C variant is able to carry four Meteor missiles, its advanced E model can hold up to seven.
Additionally, the Gripen is an attractive option for many customers due to Saab’s openness regarding technology transfer. The company has also helped local industries by including indigenous firms of different nations in the production of some components. All these qualities make the fighter quite desirable, especially for militaries with restricted defense budgets.
Saab has already exported the Gripen to Brazil, South Africa, the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Thailand. However, all but one of these have managed to remain free of bribery allegations.
Late in 2013, the Brazilian government declared its decision to acquire the Gripen NG fighter jet. The Swedish plane defeated Boeing’s F-18 Super Hornet and Dassault Aviation’s Rafale to win this coveted tender.
A deal for the aircraft was signed in 2014. However, by 2015, several accusations of corruption had popped up regarding this purchase.
Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, former president of Brazil, was accused of helping Saab win the tender competition by trading his influence after he left office.
His son Luís Cláudio Lula da Silva had allegedly received Brazilian Real 2.6 million through a consultancy called Marcondes e Mautoni Empreendimentos e Diplomacia on behalf of his father as payment for influence peddling.
In 206, Brazilian prosecutors formally accused Lula of using his influence over his hand-picked successor’s government to help Saab win the tender for 36 Gripen jets. According to reports, the prosecutors were looking at a $900 million price difference.
Lula’s lawyers said he had no role in the Gripen purchase. Lula’s law firm Teixeira, Martins & Advogados had stated in an emailed statement that the case amounted to “political persecution”.
In 2011, Saab had said that payments – potential bribes – had been made through the British arms producer, BAE Systems.
BBC reported that Saab’s CEO Hakan Buskhe had then said that about Rand 24m ($3.5m) had been paid by BAE Systems to Saab’s South African subsidiary Sanip Pty Ltd.
The payments were then allegedly transferred to a South African consultant, without the transactions having ever entered the accounts of Sanip. The payments apparently took place without the knowledge of Saab.
The Czech Republic & Hungary
But Saab’s history with corruption in Gripen deals seems to go even further back. It was in 1999, after gaining membership in NATO, that the Czech Republic started looking to buy new fighter aircraft. It issued a tender for the same in 2000.
That same year, Hungary also flagged off a competition to replace its Soviet MiG-29 fighters. Gripen was a contender in both these contests.
The Czech Republic ended up selecting the Gripen in 2001, subsequently placing an order for 24 planes, amounting to $1.8 billion. However, that deal was canceled in 2002 because the country needed to redirect funds towards reconstruction after the massive floods. After negotiations, Prague signed a $750 million deal in 2004 for 14 Gripens leased for 10 years.
Meanwhile, Hungary decided to select Gripen over the US’ F-16 (which was favored by the military and viewed as the most likely winner) after Prime Minister Victor Orban changed his mind at the last minute. This happened in 2002.
There were suspicions that the selection of the Gripen by Prague and Budapest may have been influenced by bribes paid to Czech and Hungarian politicians and officials.
Conservative estimates place the value of these bribes at Euro 12.6 million. The incentive was likely paid via a network of BAE agents in Central Europe.
A prominent name in this affair was that of Austrian Count Alfons Mensdorff-Pouilly. The evidence of these corrupt dealings was revealed in the investigations by the Swedish and Austrian media.
A massive sum of more than 4 million British pounds in secret commission and a network of various agents and shell companies in multiple countries was uncovered.
Despite multiple accounts of financial malpractice having come to the forefront, the Gripen’s prospects seem decent.
The jet’s bids are still active to varying degrees in different countries such as Botswana, Canada, Columbia, Croatia, Finland, India, Indonesia, and the Philippines. About a dozen nations have also expressed at least some amount of interest in the fighter.