SAAF Gripen flies again

According to some press information and social media posts, the JAS-39 Gripen fighter of the South African Air Force took into the skies again, after a one-year grounding. The first flight after that break was reported to be performed on 5th September.

In April of 2008, the Swedish aircraft manufacturer began with deliveries of JAS-39 Gripen fighters to the Republic of South Africa, following a contract signed back in 1999. The South African Air Force (SAAF) ordered a total of twenty six aircraft – seventeen C single-seat variant and nine D two-seat ones.

Initially, it seemed as a very promising deal for SAAB, including the consideration of establishing Gripen Fighter Weapon School in South Africa. However, as a consequence of unstable political situation in the country, as well as budgetary constraints, the situation became increasingly worse.

At the beginning of 2013, the South African Ministry of Defence admitted that at least half of the SAAF Gripens were not operational and stored, due to budget cuts. Later that year, with expiration of support contract with SAAB, maintenance of the South African Air Force Gripens was assigned to local contractors. It quickly caused several issues with operational capability of the South African JAS-39 aircraft and another agreement with SAAB was signed in December of 2013. It was a short-term one and expired in 2016.

JAS-39D Gripen of the SAAF (photo by Leon Engelbrecht / Zerbet, Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0)

Nevertheless, the SAAF managed to keep its Gripens operational also beyond this date, as new maintenance contracts were concluded with GKN Aerospace company from the United Kingdom and SAAB. They finally expired in August of 2021, causing the entire fleet of the South African JAS-39 fighters to be grounded.

On 5th September 2022, after more than twelve months of grounding, the first SAAF Gripen took-off again. According to information posted on Twitter by Darren Olivier, Director at African Defence Review, it was the ´3918´ aircraft from Makhado air base. Regrettably, there were no official information released by the South African MoD nor the SAAF (it should be also noted that official web pages of the MoD and the SAAF are not working for quite a long time) – although the local military-focused press speculated that successful test flight of the SAAF Gripen was a result of concluding of the long-delayed maintenance agreement.

Although that flight of the SAAF JAS-39 is, without any doubt, a notable achievement for the country´s air force, an account should be taken of rather symbolic meaning of that event. One year of grounding is a significant break and it will require several months for the fleet of the South African Gripens to restore its full operational capability. Certainly, only if that process would not be limited again by new budgetary constraints.

Cover photo: JAS-39C Gripen of the SAAF (photo by NJR ZA, Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 4.0)