Lockheed Martin labeled the F-35 a “fifth-generation” fighter in 2005, a term it borrowed from Russia in 2004 to describe the F-22. Some of their rivals tumbled into this rhetorical trap and tried to argue that “fourth-generation” was just as capable. Whether it is true or not, making such a case is an uphill struggle.

But if “fifth-generation” means more than “the ultimate driving machine,” a sixth generation will emerge. Saab can argue that the JAS 39E Gripen, rather than some of the wildly expensive-looking artist's concepts we have seen, is the first such aircraft.

The Gen 5 concept is almost 30 years old. It dates to the final turning point in the Cold War, when the Reagan administration accelerated the arms race, believing (correctly) that the Soviet economic engine would throw a rod first. The F-22 was designed for a challenging but simple war: If you were in a NATO fighter and the nose was pointed east, pretty much everyone headed your way was trying to kill you.

Defense technology led aerospace in those days, and aerospace drove many other technologies. Today's gaming, simulation and movies are descended from 1980s military simulators.

The world has changed a bit. Operation Allied Force in 1999 presaged the air campaigns of the 2000s, when targets were soft but hard to find, and harder yet to pick out of the civilian environment. We can say little for certain about the nature of future conflict, except that it is likely to be led by, and revolve around, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR). For the individual pilot, sailor or soldier, that translates into situational awareness.

Demographics and economics are squeezing the size of the world's militaries—nations with more than 100 combat aircraft are few and becoming fewer. There are no blank checks for overruns.

Much of the technology of 1995, let alone 1985, has a Flintstones look from today's perspective. (My 1985 computer boasted 310 kb. of storage and communicated at a screaming 300 bits per second.) Software is no longer what makes machines work; an iPhone is hardware that is valued because of the apps that it supports. This technology is characterized by development and deployment cycles measured in months. In aerospace, the lead in materials and manufacturing has gone to the commercial side.

The conundrum facing fighter planners is that, however smart your engineering, these aircraft are expensive to design and build and have a cradle-to-grave product life that is far beyond either the political or technological horizon.

The reason that the JAS 39E may earn a Gen 6 tag is that it has been designed with these issues in mind. Software comes first: The new hardware runs Mission System 21 software, the latest roughly biennial release in the series that started with the JAS 39A/B.

Long life requires adaptability, both across missions and through-life. Like Ed Heinemann's A-4 Skyhawk, the Gripen was designed as a small aircraft with a relatively large payload. And by porting most of the software to the new version, the idea is that all C/D weapons and capabilities, and then some, are ready to go on the E.

The Swedes have invested in state-of-the-art sensors for ISR and situational awareness (AW&ST March 17, p. 28), including what may be the first in-service electronic warfare system using gallium-nitride technology. It's significant that a lot of space is devoted to the identification friend-or-foe system. Good IFF is most important in a confused situation where civilian, friendly, neutral, questionable and hostile actors are sharing the same airspace.

Sweden's ability to develop its own state-of-the-art fighters has long depended on blending home-grown and imported technology. Harvesting technology rather than inventing it becomes more important as commercial technology takes a leading role and becomes more global. The JAS 39E engine is from the U.S., the radar from Britain, and the infrared search and track system is Italian. Much of the airframe may be built in Brazil.

However, what should qualify the JAS 39E for a Gen 6 tag is what suits it most for a post-Cold War environment. It is not the world's fastest, most agile or stealthiest fighter. That is not a bug, it is a feature. The requirements were deliberately constrained because the JAS 39E is intended to cost less to develop, build and operate than the JAS 39C, despite doing almost everything better. As one engineer says: “The Swedish air force could not afford to do this the traditional way”—and neither can many others.

It's an ambitious goal, and it is the first time that Sweden has undertaken such a project in the international spotlight. But if it is successful, it will teach lessons that nobody can afford not to learn.