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The Swedish air force and aviation industry have long played a key role in the country’s defense.

At the height of the Cold War, the Swedish air force, or Flygvapnet, flew almost 500 interceptions against intruders in the course of a year. Many of these encounters, including mock com- bats, took place over the Baltic Sea, where Sweden’s air power came face to face with Soviet might in the primary defensive zone of the Swedish homeland. The organization reached its largest numerical strength in the mid-1950s, when 1,000 combat aircraft, most of them Swedish designed and built, were arrayed throughout the nation in 50 squadrons. The Swedish air arm ranked fourth in the world for a number of years, a remarkable achievement for a country of some 8 million people.

An independent Swedish air force had been created in 1926, when Swedish army and navy air formations were brought together. For many years, however, the air force remained poorly organized and small in numbers of warplanes. But the reorganization of the armed forces encouraged new strategies. Air power found advocates in a group of army and air force officers whose views were published in the New Military Journal. Air power, they argued, offered a less expensive defense against invasion than the costly and increasingly vulnerable armored warships of the navy. In 1934 one member of this vocal group, Torsten Friis, rose to command the air force. Friis proved to be a decisive and tenacious leader as well as a visionary strategist who selected able men to head the Swedish military. During his tenure, he established a tradition of strong leadership within the air force.

The international situation deteriorated in the course of the 1930s. Adolf Hitler rose to power in Germany in 1933. In the Soviet Union, Josef Stalin’s massive heavy industry and armament programs were underway. In 1936 Fascist Italy seized Ethiopia.

Swedish elections in 1936 brought to power a Social Democrat and Agrarian coalition government. The prime minister, Social Democrat Per Albin Hansson, was experienced in military affairs. He had been defense minister in a 1924 government and had chaired a national Defense Commission that worked from 1930 until the summer of 1935. A staunch advocate for the strongest possible defense of Sweden, Hansson ably led the country through very difficult times until his death in 1946.

Through the Defense Act of 1936 the Flygvapnet secured equal status with the other armed forces. The air force structure grew to include a staff and an operations division. Increased funding launched a substantial expansion program. In 1937 Sweden placed an order in Britain for 55 Gloster Gladiator biplane fighters. Fifty five German Junkers Ju-86K-1 medium bombers were assembled or license built by Saab (Svenska Aeroplan Aktiebolaget) in a new factory at Trollhättan. The Ju-86, or B-3 as the Flygvapnet designated it, was already outdated, however, and production was halted in 1940.

In 1937 a license was secured to build the American Douglas 8A-1 in Sweden. Between 1940 and 1942, 102 8A-1 single-engine monoplanes were manufactured under license in that country. Fitted with a British Bristol Pegasus XII engine, the 8A-1 could carry 600 pounds of bombs and was used by the Swedes as a light bomber under the designation B-5. Sweden employed 46 American engineers during 1938 and 1939, a move that enabled its aircraft manufacturers to learn techniques of light metal shell and stressed skin construction. Swedish industry also adopted the American emphasis on teamwork during that period.

Defense preparations gained momentum in the late ’30s, spurred on by the rapid tempo of international events. The Swedes were still preoccupied with reorganizing their aviation industry and developing a national industrial planning system for arms production when Germany and the Soviet Union attacked Poland in September 1939. Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia were compelled to sign defense treaties with the Soviet Union, and Russian forces subsequently occupied those Baltic nations.

When Finland, after refusing to accede to Soviet demands on its eastern territories, found itself under Soviet attack on November 30, 1939, Sweden took its most aggressive—albeit still unofficial—action of World War II, forming a wing of volunteers, Flygflottilj 19 (F19), to assist the Finns. Consisting of an attack squadron of Hawker Harts and a fighter squadron of Gladiators, F19, commanded by Major Hugo Beckenhammer, defended the northern sector of Finnish Lapland from January 10 to the announcement of a cease-fire on March 13, 1940. By then, F19’s pilots had flown 464 missions and destroyed 10 Soviet aircraft—two credited to 2nd Lt. PerJohan Salwén—while losing only two planes.

In spite of galling losses against the outnumbered but determined and murderously efficient Finns, the Soviets ultimately succeeded in securing some Finnish territory and leased a base at Hangö, on the southwestern Finnish coast. That placed the eastern coast of Sweden, including the capital of Stockholm, under the shadow of Soviet power. Then, between April and June 1940, Germany occupied Denmark and subjugated Norway in a swift campaign largely made possible by the Luftwaffe. German power was now ensconced along Sweden’s entire western border.

The Swedes were well aware that they needed a modern monoplane fighter, and negotiations began in the late ’30s to secure such a warplane from Britain or Germany. When those countries refused to sell to Sweden, the Flygvapnet turned to the United States, whose Seversky Aircraft Corporation offered an improved export model of its P-35. In June 1939, Sweden ordered 120 of the fighters, now designated the Republic Export Pursuit 1-106. By mid-1940, 60 of the new fighters had arrived and were deployed in defense of Stockholm. The EP1-106 featured a 1,050-hp Pratt & Whitney engine, a maximum speed of 306 mph, and was armed with two heavy and two light machine guns. In February 1940, Sweden placed an order for 144 Vultee 48C Vanguard fighters, powered by 1,200-hp Pratt & Whitney engines.

By that time, however, the United States desperately needed warplanes for its own military expansion. On July 2, 1940, additional U.S. arms exports were forbidden, and weapons produced for export were requisitioned in October.

At that point only Italy was willing to exchange warplanes for scarce nickel and foreign currency. From Italy the Swedes secured 72 Fiat CR.42bis biplanes and 60 Reggiane Re.2000 monoplane fighters. Although superior to the earlier Gladiator, the CR.42 was obsolescent on delivery. The Re.2000, on the other hand, was a more streamlined copy of the P-35. Armed with two 12.7mm machine guns, the Re.2000 had a top speed of 329 mph, but mechanics cursed its Piaggio P.IX radial engine, which needed lots of attention. Stationed in southern Sweden, Reggiane-equipped units would bear the brunt of defense patrols throughout World War II.

In the course of the war, Swedish industry produced 702 combat aircraft and trainers. Of these, 118 were license built and 584 were Swedish designs. The country’s aviation industry had to surmount many handicaps, notably shortages of duraluminum, machine tools and technical personnel. The lack of powerful engines proved to be the most serious problem. The Bristol Mercury, a radial 980-hp power plant, was built under license. The radial 1,050-hp Pratt & Whitney Twin Wasp was copied in Sweden and its power increased to 1,065 hp. Long and complicated negotiations made license production of the in-line 1,475-hp Daimler-Benz DB 605B impossible until the end of the war.

The first metal stressed-skin airplane designed in Sweden, the Saab B-17 was produced to replace the Northrop 8A-1. A single-engine light bomber, the B-17 began production in December 1941, and a total of 322 would be manufactured. Streamlined with flush riveting for low drag, the B-17 proved to be a rugged warplane that handled very well and could carry a maximum payload of 1,500 pounds of bombs. The maximum range for the B-17A was 1,120 miles.

As the war progressed, a replacement for the Junkers B-3 medium bomber was urgently needed. To meet this requirement, Saab developed a twin-engine aircraft that entered service in March 1944. The B-18A, powered by Pratt & Whitney radial engines, could carry a 3,066-pound bombload and had a maximum speed of 289 mph. A total of 62 B-18As were built, and served to strengthen Sweden’s medium bomber capability until they were eclipsed by the DB 605Bpowered B-18B. Its cruising speed exceeded the B-18A’s top speed, and it could do a maximum of 354 mph. The more advanced B-18B entered service at the end of the war and became the mainstay of the Flygvapnet’s attack arm in the early Cold War era.

The need to replace aging biplane fighters became a matter of increasing concern. While Saab worked out some promising concepts, the creation of an interim fighter became a national project, with the Swedish government enlisting contributions from about 500 companies of all types and sizes. A temporary air force branch, Flygförtvalningens Verkstad i Stockholm (FFVS), was instituted to run the project, and its chief designer was Bo Lundberg, who had headed the Swedish Air Commission in the United States before being called home in 1940. The continuing shortage of duraluminum and the lack of a powerful engine resulted in daunting challenges during the design process. Welded stainless steel was employed for the structure, covered by plywood panels. With production priorities on Pratt & Whitney Twin Wasp engines committed to other planes, the Swedes were fortunate to be able to purchase French-built Twin Wasps for the new fighter from Germany and Vichy France.

Completed in the workshop of Flygtekniska Försöksanstalten (FFA) near Bromma airport, the first FFVS J-22 flew on September 20, 1942. Although the first two prototypes crashed—one probably because its pilot suffered oxygen starvation, the other due to engine failure upon landing—the J-22 proved to be a remarkably elegant, compact design that maneuvered and handled extremely well. The 1,065-hp engine limited its maximum speed to a modest 358 mph, but it had a high rate of climb. Armed with four machine guns, the J-22 entered service in October 1943, and 198 were built by 1946, equipping nine fighter squadrons and a reconnaissance unit. Arguably the first, and certainly the last, fighter plane to be designed and manufactured by the air force it served, the J-22 succeeded in replacing the biplanes and tiding over the Flygvapnet. Three examples survive in museums today.

Meanwhile, Saab’s promising J-21A fighter had to await the availability of the 1,475-hp DB 605B in-line engine to enter production, and consequently did not see service until December 1945. An unconventional design, the J-21A had a rear-mounted engine with pusher propeller, twin-boom tail unit and tricycle landing gear. The wing airfoil effectively minimized drag while preserving lift. The J-21A was also notable for being one of the first fighters to be equipped with an ejection seat for the pilot.

The J-21A boasted ease of handling, a tight turning radius, a low stall speed and a maximum speed of 398 mph. It was well armed, with four heavy machine guns and a 20mm cannon. As a fighter, however, the J-21A was not the equal of American, British or German aircraft at the end of the war. It was in fact the fighter Sweden should have had in 1942. But its excellent visibility and stability coupled with a payload of 3,850 pounds of bombs or rockets made it a fine attack plane. A total of 302 J-21A fighters and A-21A attack variants served Sweden’s armed forces until they were replaced by jet fighters in the 1950s.

The results of Sweden’s efforts at aerial defense were largely measured in aircraft interned for violating the country’s airspace. In the course of the conflict, 330 British, German and American warplanes either crash-landed in Sweden or were escorted to Swedish air bases. Often Allied airmen whose crippled planes were unable to make it back to their bases in England deliberately chose Swedish internment over German captivity. Sometimes, however, Swedish fighters had to fire warning bursts to persuade recalcitrant crews to land their planes. Ten straying German aircraft were shot down by Swedish anti-aircraft batteries.

The most significant long-range results of WWII for Sweden were threefold. The country emerged with a substantial industrial base and a highly skilled work force. A strong foundation thus existed for postwar combat aircraft programs. Moreover, the Swedes had developed a model of success—close teamwork between industry, government and the air force. Finally, long after the war the Swedish people were determined to develop and sustain strong armed forces. The country’s vulnerability during the wartime years remained etched in popular memory.

During the late 1940s, Sweden found itself in a challenging strategic situation. The Soviet Union dominated the Baltic and the countries of eastern Europe. As rival blocs emerged, Sweden did not commit to military alliance but was careful to maintain close links with Britain and the United States. In June 1948, a Parliamentary Defense Act was created that stressed air power. With vivid memories of its difficulties in obtaining fighters during the war years, Sweden emphasized development of advanced combat aircraft for air defense and attack missions.

The Flygvapnet came into the jet age with de Havilland Vampires, Venoms and Hawker Hunters from Britain. Saab then designed and built its own series of world-class jet fighters. License built in Sweden, British and American jet engines were fitted with powerful Swedish afterburners. British and American weapons, some of them made in Sweden, were used to arm Swedish fighters. With substantial U.S. assistance, a sophisticated electronics industry began developing in Sweden.

Sweden’s first indigenous jet was, like the Yakovlev Yak-15 and Yak-17, a “quick fix” derived from a piston- engine fighter, but was not as successful as its Soviet contemporaries. While research proceeded on more original designs, Saab’s engineering team at Linköping, led by Ragnar Hälmark, converted the J-21A to use a de Havilland Goblin turbojet engine, claiming the plane would retain 80 percent of the original airframe. By the time the first prototype J-21R flew on March 10, 1947, however, some 50 percent of the aircraft had undergone major alteration. The J-21R proved to be a disappointing performer too, with poor handling characteristics and only 40 minutes’ flight endurance.

Only 60 of the 120 J-21Rs ordered were built, but their gestation had given Saab invaluable experience toward the development of its later, more successful designs, starting with the J-29, which entered service in May 1951. Contacts in Switzerland gave Saab access to wartime German research on sweptwings, which were incorporated into the design of the J-29. Powered by a de Havilland Ghost engine, the chunky fighter, nicknamed the Tunnan (“barrel”), set a world speed record in 1954, averaging 607 mph over a 310-mile course. The plane’s four 20mm cannons were augmented, from 1963 on, with American Sidewinder air-to-air missiles. From 1951 to 1956, 661 J-29s were manufactured by Saab.

Saab next designed the large and electronically sophisticated A-32/J-32 Lansen, or Lance. Powered by a Rolls-Royce Avon, the two-seat sweptwing Lansen fulfilled all-weather attack and night-interception roles. Integrated into the Lansen was a search and attack radar that enabled crews to engage targets beyond visual range. Attack weapons included bombs, air-to-ground rockets and a Swedish radar-homing, sea-skimming missile. The interceptor, which proved to be popular with its pilots, was equipped with four British-made 30mm Aden cannons and four Sidewinders. Saab produced 449 of the aircraft between 1955 and 1960.

From 1961 through 1963, Swedish J-29s played a major role in support of United Nations operations in the strife-torn Congo. Soon after the Congo achieved independence from Belgium in 1960, Katanga province broke away, leading to a bloody civil war in which the Katanga rebels possessed a force of light planes and the Congo had no air arm at all. By the time the UN sent troops to try to bring an end to the conflict, it included aircraft from India, Ethiopia and Sweden. When Sweden’s contingent, including J-29Bs of F22, arrived at Léopoldville on October 4, 1961, its commander, Sven Lampell, asked when his fighters could fly their first mission, replied, “It will take 10 minutes to refuel the aircraft.” Their guns were already loaded. Operating from Luluabourg in harsh weather and very primitive conditions, the Swedish planes, pilots and ground crews acquitted themselves with distinction in that struggle.

When the Katangans launched an offensive in December 1961, the UN responded by attacking its airfields. The F-29s and Indian English Electric Canberras eliminated the Katangan air arm within a few days and helped bring about a cessation to the fighting on December 16. On December 24, 1962, resurgent Katangan forces attacked the UN troops themselves, but on the 29th and 30th the Swedes struck back at Kolwezi and Jadotville airfields, eliminating the Katangan air force again. The UN launched a counteroffensive on January 21, 1963, with the J-29s providing air support. UN operations in the Congo ended in August of that year.

From its inception, the Flygvapnet employed dispersed operations, taking advantage of the country’s terrain and vast forests. That strategy remains an effective defense today, as Swedish units currently deploy in times of crisis to networks of runways hidden in the forests, where fuel and weapons are stockpiled. Dedicated base battalions refuel, rearm and repair the fighters. Warplanes and support personnel alike are protected by well-armed base Ranger formations.

Thanks to the country’s specialized defense needs, modern Swedish fighters are built for short takeoff and landing operations from airstrips that are only 800 meters long. The warplanes are designed to maintain a high sortie rate. A ground crew of six can refuel and rearm a fighter for an air defense mission in less than 10 minutes, and an attack mission in 20 minutes.

Perhaps the most graceful and elegant of all Swedish fighters was the J-35 Draken (Dragon). A radical innovation, the double delta wing design featured an inner wing with 80-degree sweep and an outer wing with 57- degree sweep. The double delta presented low drag yet possessed large wing area for lift. Hence the Draken reconciled short takeoff and landing performance with a maximum speed of Mach 2, twice the speed of sound.

In 1965 the J-35F was armed with Hughes heat and radar homing collision course air-to-air missiles produced and improved under license. The plane’s missiles, sights and radar were an integrated system. Facilitated by a data link, interceptions could be controlled almost completely from ground control centers. As a result, the Draken served as the mainstay of the Swedish fighter force for 20 years. In fact, the last J-35J squadron was not retired until December 1998. During that aircraft’s service life, a posting to fly the Draken was a coveted prize for Swedish pilots. The 615 J-35s ultimately produced saw service in the Austrian, Danish and Finnish air forces as well as the Flygvapnet.

To replace the Lansen in the attack role, Saab designed the AJ-37 Viggen (Thunderclap). By the mid- 1960s, the complexity of warplanes and their electronic systems demanded a national effort to produce such an aircraft. A special project directorate brought together 10,000 people, including 3,300 engineers, in the plane’s development. The Viggen employed a canard foreplane and delta wing. A Volvo-built Pratt & Whitney JT8 D-22 engine was substantially modified for the Viggen, with an additional fan stage, a massive Swedish afterburner and a thrust reverser for short landings.

Sophisticated electronics were key to the new warplane’s capabilities. Based on American technology but built in Sweden, a central digital computer reduced pilot workload and made it possible for a single crewman to handle the plane. Its instrumentation was so thoughtfully designed that the Viggen cockpit was reportedly acclaimed by pilots as one of the best in the world.

The JA-37 fighter version of the Viggen featured a Swedish radar with look-down, shoot-down capability and a range in excess of 30 miles. This was the first airborne pulse doppler radar developed in Europe. Armed with British Skyflash missiles, the chunky Viggen was a formidable warplane. Although its engine was very powerful, it proved thirsty for fuel. The complex power unit also required considerable maintenance. In all, 329 Viggens were manufactured.

From 1989 through 1991, sweeping changes created a new strategic landscape in northern Europe. The Soviet Union and its empire in eastern Europe collapsed. The Baltic nations became once more independent, and Finland regained full freedom in military and foreign policy. As a result, Swedish military policy was substantially revised, with less need for sheer numbers of soldiers and weapons. The Flygvapnet now works very closely with the air arms of Norway, Finland and the Netherlands. Poland has signed a military agreement with Sweden and participates in Swedish air force exercises. Swedish fighter formations are now prepared to function in overseas situations. Given 30 days notice, a base battalion can be ready for international commitment.

Given the new environment, Sweden introduced a multipurpose fighter, attack and reconnaissance warplane, the JAS-39 Gripen (Griffin), that is light and compact in design. A fuel-efficient and low maintenance General Electric F 404-400 engine, 50 percent modified in Sweden, powers the Gripen. Composite materials make up 30 percent of the airframe, and the wings are fabricated of carbon fiber.

Short takeoff and landing capability is assured for the new plane through its computer-controlled variable canard foreplanes and light weight. Since a compact plane is difficult to detect, the frontal radar cross section of the Gripen is one-third that of a General Dynamics F-16. At the heart of the Gripen is an advanced secure data link system. Information garnered by one fighter can be instantly shared with other combat units and relayed by other fighters.

American medium-range and short-range Sidewinder missiles arm the JAS-39 for air-to-air combat. A new European missile intended for use in dogfights, the IRIST, is under development. Attack weapons include the American Maverick missile, the Swedish RBS-15F antishipping missile and a standoff bomblet dispenser. Under development by Sweden and Germany is a turbojet-powered weapon, the Taurus, with a 217-mile range.

Substantial improvements have been incorporated in the 84 JAS-39C and D models that are replacing As and Bs in Swedish service, including a retractable in-flight refueling probe, oxygen generation equipment and NATO standard IFF (identification friend or foe) features. The 14 two-seat JAS-39Bs possess fully equipped cockpits for a second crew member, who can perform a wide range of missions, including electronic warfare, control of unmanned aerial vehicles or command of a group of warplanes. South Africa, Hungary and the Czech Republic have chosen to equip their forces with the Gripen, while Brazil, India and Thailand have also shown interest in purchasing the aircraft.

Since the end of WWII, Sweden has been on the cutting edge of world fighter design, and with the JAS-39 that proud tradition is continued. Today the regions of the world are linked in an electronic and economic framework, yet many areas are rife with instability and conflict. Crisis management, peacekeeping and peacemaking are complex processes, but the Swedish air force remains committed to meeting challenges around the globe.


Sherwood Cordier writes from Kalamazoo, Mich. For additional reading, try Saab Aircraft Since 1937, by Hans Andersson.

Originally published in the July 2006 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here