One of the most common criticisms when it comes to the Saab Gripen potentially replacing the CF-18 Hornet is that it would be a "downgrade".  This criticism does have merit.  The Gripen, even the "E" version, is smaller, lighter, less powerful, and carries less payload then the CF-18.  When looked at under these metrics, one wonders why the Gripen should even be considered.  

There seems to be a lingering distaste for smaller fighters following Canada's experience with the CF-116 (F-5) Freedom Fighter.  While the CF-5 was not a bad aircraft, it was ill-suited to Canada's needs.  

So why should Canada even consider "downgrading" to a smaller, less powerful fighter?

The answer, of course, is context.  

Yes, the Gripen is indeed smaller than the CF-18.  Roughly 2 meters shorter in length, over 3 meters narrower in wingspan, and just slightly shorter in height; you could fit a Gripen inside the Hornet's footprint with room to spare.  At a mere 8 tonnes empty, the Gripen is also a full tonne-and-a-half lighter.

Size isn't everything of course.  

The Gripen's smaller stature is by design.  Operating cost almost directly related to aircraft size.  Bigger aircraft are heavier and therefore require more powerful engines.  More powerful engines require more fuel, making the aircraft even heavier...  And so on.

Speaking of power, the Gripen E does produce less than the Hornet.  While upgrading the RM12 (GE F404) engine to a GE F414 does give the Gripen a substantial boost, it is still less than 70% of the Hornet's maximum thrust.  

Does that mean the Gripen is slower?  NOPE.  

Aeronautics is not simply about raw power.  These are fluid dynamics.  Thrust-to-weight ratios are important, but so is drag and lift.  Being lighter and more aerodynamic than the Hornet, the Gripen needs less thrust and lift.  In fact, the older C/D model of the Gripen outperforms the Hornet in several categories.  It has a faster top speed and higher g-limit.  At 50,000ft/minute, the two are evenly matched when it comes to time-to-climb.  With a slightly better thrust-to-weight ratio (when equally fueled) than its older sibling, the Gripen E should be as good if not better.  

Where the Gripen and Hornet differ substantially is how they prioritize aerodynamic efficiency.  The CF-18 is famous for its low speed maneuverability.  By contrast, the Gripen seems to prioritize high-and-fast.  Saab is promising "supercruise" capability of Mach 1.1 and a top speed of Mach 2.  

But what about payload?

Having a Mach 2 fighter is not much use if it cannot carry the required ordinance.  Nor does it matter if that fighter cannot get out of its own way when loaded up with weapons and fuel.  

Again, the Gripen cannot quite match the legacy Hornet.

With a maximum payload of 5,300kg, the Gripen carries less ordinance than the legacy Hornet 6,200kg.  That is an entire 2000lb JDAM's worth of difference.  The Gripen's maximum take of weight (MTOW) of 16.5 tonnes is substantially less than the CF-18's 23.5 tonnes.  That is a lot of bombs and fuel.  

One has to ask, however...  Does payload matter that much?

Above is a picture of a CF-18 flying combat mission over Libya.  It is the result of a quick Google image search to find the most "heavily armed CF-18".  It appears to be equipped with three(!) external tanks, two AIM-9 Sidewinders,  One AIM-7 Sparrow, two GBU-24 smart bombs, and a targeting pod. That works out to about 2000kg worth of bombs and 400kg worth of missiles.  The rest is fuel.  One could argue that the the Hornet has the advantage of carrying more fuel...  But the more fuel efficient Gripen does not need as much.  

Maximum payload may end up being more or less moot anyway.  The trend nowadays seems to suggest weapons are becoming smaller and more precise.  While there will always be a need for 2,000lb "bunker busters"; newer bombs like the Stormbreaker and Brimstone help reduce the chances of collateral damage.  Politically, precision guided weapons taking out high value targets makes a lot more sense than the brute force tactics of carpet bombing.  Simply put, the days of Vietnam-era "Rolling Thunder" exercises are pretty much over.

Whatever the case, the fact that the Gripen still remains in the FFCP would seem to imply that its performance and payload has been declared "enough".  

One should also remember that the CF-18 Hornet itself was itself a "downgrade" in some ways compared to its predecessors.  The Hornet is slower than the CF-104 Starfighter and less powerful than the CF-101 Voodoo.  The Hornet has a substantially higher payload than those fighters...  But that discussion gets complicated.  

At one point in their lives, both the CF-101 and CF-104 were equipped with far more firepower than the CF-18 would ever see.  The Voodoo would strap on two AIR-2A Genie nuclear-tipped rockets, while the Starfighter was set up to deliver a B23, B43, or B57 nuclear bomb.  Were people upset when the slower non-nuclear-equipped CF-18 replaced the CF-104?  

When the CF-18 Hornet was announced, many deemed the middleweight fighter unsuitable for Canada.  Many would have preferred the F-15 Eagle or F-4 Tomcat.  One could argue whether or not we made the best choice; but few would call the CF-18 a failure.  

One should also remember that the CF-18 Hornet was selected during a much different geopolitical time.  Not to diminish potential threats happening in Eastern Europe (Russia) and the South China Sea; but the CF-18 was selected at the height of the Cold War.  Defence budgets were at their highest, as were tensions.  Now, some have asked if Canada even needs new fighter jets at all.  The argument is made that that money would be better put to use funding social programs or climate change.  This is, of course, ridiculous.  But does Canada need a fighter that carries more bombs?  That seems unlikely.  

In most ways that matter, the Gripen E would be a substantial upgrade to the CF-18 Hornet.  It has increased combat radius and faster speed.  Its radar, IRST, and EW/ECM suite far outclass the current Hornet, with potential to push EW even further.  

The Gripen E is only a "downgrade" when comparing a few cherry-picked specifications.  Using that sort of logic, one could argue that the F-22 Raptor is inferior to the F-15C or even the F-4 Phantom.  This is, of course, ridiculous.  

When viewed holistically, the JAS 39E should match or exceed the capabilities of the CF-18.  In the few cases it does not, one has to wonder how relevant those parameters are.  Unlike the CF-5 Freedom Fighter it is sometimes compared to; this is not some lightweight "day fighter" with a limited missions set.  The Gripen is a full-fledged multirole fighter...  Perhaps one of the best.  


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