On 12 March 2019, the Czech Republic celebrated the 20th anniversary of its NATO membership, and it is fair to say the air force has seen substantial benefits since then.
All the Czech Air Force (CzAF) bases have seen the infrastructure and facilities vastly improved, with the air traffic controls a great example of this. Today, there are three operational air force bases serving the CzAF. Čáslav (21 Tactical Air Base – základny taktickèho letectvo ‘Zvolenská’, 21.ztl), is home to all the fighters, Namest nad Oslavou (22 Tactical Helicopter Base – základna vrtulnikoveho letectva ‘Biskajska’, 22.zvl) hosts the tactical helicopters and Kbely (24 Air Transportation Base – základna dopravniho letectva, zdl) on the outskirts of Prague is where the tactical transport and VIP fixed wing aircraft are based alongside VIP helicopters. LOM Praha’s Flight Training Centre (Leteckého Výcviku, CLV) based at Pardubice has been providing all the CzAF’s pilot training requirements since 2004.
Čáslav – Home of the Fighters
The CzAF was ushered into new era when the Saab JAS 39C/D GRIPENs took over the role of the ageing but hard working MiG-21MFNs. They had served the country well, but after 40+ years of service the CzAF needed a modern replacement. The first JAS-39C landed at Čáslav in April 2005, which led to the new modern jets being assigned to NATO on 1 July 2005. They are operated by 211 Tactical Squadron (taktickèho letka).
The CzAF is leasing 10 JAS 39C and two JAS 39D GRIPENs as part of an agreement that ends in 2027, although there is the option of a two-year extension. Base Commander Brigadier General Petr Tomañek told the author, “They provide the air defence for the Czech Republic. As a result, two jets are on 24/7/365 quick reaction alert (QRA) armed with the AIM-9M SIDEWINDER, a gun and fuel tanks.”
Tomañek added, “Every day, we usually have two TANGO scrambles [for practice], and when we do experience real scrambles it’s normally because an aircraft is suffering from a Commloss [communications loss]. We don’t use the AIM-120 AMRAAMs for QRA, we use them for air policing and will be taking them to Estonia.”
On 28 March, the 21 ZTL deployed four JAS 39 GRIPENs alongside three L-159 Advanced Light Combat Aircraft (ALCA) to Vidsel in Sweden for live weapons training. They fired AIM-9M SIDEWINDERs, guns and dropped air-to-ground munitions. Up to 60 personnel supported the detachment. It’s all part of the work-up for the GRIPENs’ four-month Baltic Air Policing (BAP) deployment to Asmari in Estonia from the end of August. Another feature of the work-up will be air-to-air refuelling practice with a Nebraska ANG KC-135R and a Swedish Air Force C-130H tanker.
The large Vidsel range in northern Sweden has hosted the 212 Squadron and its ALCAs in the past for Exercise Northern Arrow. Most of the units were deployed to a very cold Vidsel airport inside the Arctic Circle for an experience the personnel will always remember, and the current commander, Lt.Col. Denis ‘Dubra’ Dúbravčík, is now looking forward to taking the unit back there again for Exercise Nordic Fires. “Air-to-air live firing is very unique for us as there is no range in the Czech Republic where we can train for this.”
For the GRIPENs, it will be the third time they have been deployed to the Baltic States to defend their airspace against possible Russian intrusion. There are now discussions within the Czech Air Force about the future development of capabilities and requirements for 2030, which will cover the Army’s needs as well as air-land integration (ALI). “We will need to consider such things as, do we need a subsonic fleet or a mix of supersonic aircraft?”, the Base Commander said. “Both the L-159s and GRIPENs are used in the ALI, and we have started the air-to-ground capability on the latter, within the new MS20 software upgrade.”
A key element of the enhancement will be the integration of the electro-optical LITENING III targeting pod, not just for guiding missiles and bombs, but also aerial reconnaissance and combat. The upgrade also implements NATO’s data link – Link 16 – as well as cryptomodules for covert communication. In a Saab press release, the Base Commander said last year, “Thanks to the modernisation of the Czech GRIPEN aircraft, the operational capabilities of the Czech Air Force will be significantly increased. Our staff has appreciated a close and fruitful cooperation with the Swedish side on this specific modernisation project during the 13 years that we have operated GRIPEN aircraft.”
He told the author, “We have four LITENING pods in service, and implementation of Link 16 will lead to the first aircraft upgraded by the end of the year. We currently use the pods for identification during air intercepts, and if there is time we use them for training during flights.”
The new software package was integrated into single- and double-seater versions of the Czech GRIPEN on 12 March 2018. After successful flight tests the remaining fighters were also upgraded.
The Aero L-159 Advanced Light Combat Aircraft (ALCA) was introduced into CzAF service in September 2000. Today, all 24 L-159s equip the 212th Tactical Squadron (212.tl).
Like everything else at Čáslav, the 212th’s main role is to protect the Czech airspace, although the unit is much more focused on the direct air support of the Czech Army’s ground forces. No 212 also has a secondary national QRA role, which since 1 January, 2008 has included the so-called National Air Defence System (NaPoSy).
This means the jets have to be ready within 24 hours to ensure two L-159s are ready for a 15-minute emergency (known as RS-15) scramble. They would be armed with a 23mm PLAMEN PL-20 cannon, a pair of AIM-9L SIDEWINDER air-to-air missiles and two 350-gallon fuel tanks under the wings. This task is designed to protect high-value assets, such as nuclear power plants or buildings of importance. ALCAs only usually take on this role if there is an increased security risk, although the squadron regularly trains in the mission.
The unit also provides advanced combat training for pilots coming from LOM Praha. This involves much more complex missions, such as air-to-air combat up to 2v2. In the near future, this is set to be taken on by the 213 Training Squadron, in a bid to speed up the training of the pilots to the basic combat-ready standard.
A third unit is the 213th Training Squadron (213. výcviková letka) which was established on 1 December 2013 with L-39ZAs and five two-seater L-159T1s. These very basic T1s are currently being upgraded to the T1+ standard (also known in the CzAF as T1 Provision) equipped with a radar (although they are not switched on) ready for future T2 standard upgrade. These modernised trainers will help to support new plans to streamline training. The L-159T2s have two 5×7 MFDs in the rear and front cockpit, a GRIFO radar and are NVG capable.
Col. Petr Tomañek, the Čáslav Base Commander, and a fighter pilot with 200 hours on the MiG-21MFN and another 1,200 hours on the L-39 and L-159, said in September 2018: “These T1+s are going through a general overhaul when the cockpits are provisioned for a new MFD.”
The Czech Air Force has also reviewed the current training setup and late last year signed a new seven-year contract with CLV that will allow 213 Sqn instructors taking part in the final two phases of combat training to teach updated tactics and speed the process up. It will ensure that the quality of the new pilots that come to Čáslav, destined for fast jets, is at the level that will allow them to fly tactical missions after type conversion. The plan is that every year there will be two or three instructors attached to CLV for three months or so. This should shrink the time needed to train pilots and see younger pilots qualify on the GRIPEN or ALCA.
Tomañek added “At the moment, the system to get them to combat-ready on
ALCA or GRIPEN is time-consuming and not consistent for various reasons. Typically, an
L-39ZA pilot in 213 Training Squadron might have flown 500 hours or so, which cannot be good for their morale or for the Czech Air Force.”
The Base Commander continues, “It is not the best situation, but we hope the new system will improve this. It isn’t good for the air force either, because we cannot afford to lose pilots when they get here because they are not up to the tactical effort, after years of flight training. We need to ensure that they are ready for tactical flying in the L-159 or GRIPEN when they get to 213 Sqn.”
The L-39ZAs are being retired in May, and the airshow at Čáslav on 25 May will honour the old training jet. There are currently three L-39ZAs flying with 213 Sqn that are expected to be replaced by the three L-159T2s working alongside the five upgraded L-159T1+ aircraft.
“Some parts of the new training system will be ready by the end of the year; but we have to wait for L-39NG to be introduced [even if no contract has been signed for the acquisition yet]. Previously 212 Sqn trained pilots for the GRIPEN, but in the future that will be the job of 213 Sqn, and so we are selecting new experienced instructors for the unit. It will be more demanding, but the biggest challenge is human resources…making the air force an attractive proposition to the younger generation.”
The CzAF Air Advisory Team in Iraq
The Iraqi Air Force is operating 13 L-159s and its pilots are being tutored in the tactical role by instructor pilots from the Czech Air Force Air Advisory Team (AAT). Around 30 or so CzAF personnel are based at Balad to help the IQAF with learning the tactical capabilities of the Advanced Light Combat Aircraft (ALCA).
An AAT Commander, normally based at Čáslav, told the author when he visited Balad in September 2017, “We want to forge a friendship first and then mentor them, then progress the training and perhaps help them approach things a little differently than what they might normally do.”
The Commander was one of three CzAF pilots among the 30-strong team. “We provide pilots with the tactical training they need to get the most out of the aircraft. Our mandate is only for training missions as we are not allowed to support them during combat sorties,”
The AAT started in mid-2016 and is expected to continue until the end of 2020. Captain ‘M’ from Čáslav-based 211 Sqn had just flown in a two-ship formation with an IQAF pilot on an air-to-ground training mission when I met him. “We always have a face-to-face briefing first on the target information. The missions usually last between 50 minutes and an hour, based on the sortie’s profile. We will fly in mixed formations with the Iraqi pilots whenever it is required.”
Major ‘J’ added: “We are training the IQAF pilots in how to deliver the weapons and then in air defence. We are used strictly for training and mentoring in non-combat missions. We hope to eventually to help them set up their training syllabus, squadron operations and standards.”
The CzAF tactical helicopter fleet is made up of six Russian-built Mi-24Vs and ten Mi-35P HINDs, alongside 17 Mi-17Sh helicopters. The HINDs serving 221 Helicopter Squadron (Vtulníková Letka, vl) are used predominantly for close air support, working with Czech joint air terminal controllers and for combat search and rescue. Four of the tactical Mi-17Sh transport helicopters have been designed to support Special Forces with 221 Sqn. The SOATU (Special Operations Air Task Unit) variant can be used for various tasks such as transportation of troops or cargo, hoisting in rescue operations, para drops, or reconnaissance with the use of a forward-looking infrared (FLIR) turret. Survivability has been enhanced by the installation of armour around the cockpit and cargo cabin and installing an Israeli BIRD Aerosystems missile weapon system (MWS). For self-defence, the rear of the helicopter can house a PKM machine gun or a M134D minigun. A SOATU Mi-17Sh crew is made up of a pilot, co-pilot, flight engineer and door gunners when required. The remaining 13 Mi-17Sh helicopters serve 222 Helicopter Sqn for tactical airlift. CzAF Mi-17 personnel are also working in the Kabul-based Air Advisory Team supporting the Afghan Air Force.
There are aspirations to replace the Mi-24/35 fleet over the coming years with 12 new helicopters. A longer-term plan is to acquire up to 35 helicopters to replace the whole Russian helicopter fleet. Acquiring spare parts is an issue now, and keeping the fleets in the air is becoming increasingly fraught.
Back in 2017, the Prague government shortlisted the Bell UH-1Y and Leonardo Helicopters AW139 as a replacement. In June 2015, Bell even signed a Memorandum of Understanding with LOM Praha to provide maintenance and training support on the UH-1Y helicopters. However, the tender was put on hold in December 2017 by an interim government, and on 18 June 2018 the Czech Chief of General Staff Lieutenant General Aleš Opata said “the purchase of these multipurpose helicopters [to replace the Mi-24V/35] including armaments and ammunition, will allow the air force to progressively develop its capabilities. This will cover combat support of the ground and special forces in the Czech Republic and during foreign deployments, and protecting the air defence of the Czech Republic.”
Later in June, the new Prime Minister Andrej Babiš commented that the purchases should be made in a transparent way and that there should be no influences by lobbyist groups. He added, “It is a key defence contract and the transparency is crucial.”
Transport and VIP
The 24th Air Transportation Base (zakladna dopravniho letectva, zdl) at Prague-Kbely is tasked with both tactical and VIP transport. As such, it operates a large variety of aircraft, with three squadrons covering all the requirements. One Yak-40 is still believed to serve the 241 Transport Squadron (dopravniho letka, dl), which has a detachment at the main Prague-Ruzyne international airport with one CL601 CHALLENGER and two Airbus A319CJs in the VIP role. No 242 Special Transport Squadron (transportní a speciální letka, tsl) operates four Airbus C295Ms and four LET L-410UVPs as well as two L-410FGs for flight calibration. The 243 Helicopter Squadron (vrtulníková letka, vl) flies a mix of four Mi-8/Mi-17s and ten W3A SOKOLs for both VIP and transportation.
LOM Praha’s Training
State-owned LOM Praha runs the CLV (Centrum leteckého výcviku – Flight Training Centre) at Pardubice. The CLV is responsible for training pilots fresh from the Brno-based University of Defence who are destined for the Czech Air Force. It’s a role the company has been fulfilling since 2004. Generally, the students will have flown about 50-60 hours of initial flight screening training on CLV’s seven ZLIN 142C-AFs while in their third semester of university, and then another 80 hours during the course of the university studies. In the screening period, their flying skill sets will have been observed and matched with one of the three aircraft categories: helicopters, transport aircraft or fast jets.
Until the summer of 2018, CLV operated a couple of Mi-2 HOPLITEs for initial helicopter training. Time caught up with them, and when it became obvious the overhaul of these old helicopters was more expensive than buying four Enstrom 480B-Gs, CLV opted for the latter.
After successfully overcoming the initial training, the student pilots will take on one of the six Mi-17s that CLV operates. Initially, they will fly as a co-pilot before being posted out to a tactical helicopter squadron at Náměšť nad Oslavou or Kbely.
If the new students are destined for transport aircraft, then they will fly one of the two LET 410UVPs before they progress to the tactical transport squadron at Kbely. If the pilot is destined to fly fighters, then they will start fast jet training on the L-39C ALBATROS. All seven flown by CLV are, not too surprisingly, ex-CzAF. CLV’s Flight Training Director, Jaroslav Špaček, said about the setup: “LOM Praha is a state-owned enterprise established by the MoD, so we are all civilians flying with military licences governed by the Czech Military Aviation Authority.” The former Mi-24/35 pilot who is an instructor flying Mi-17s when he is not sitting behind his desk, added, “98% of us pilots and technicians are ex-Czech Air Force.”
Alan Warnes is a journalist specialising in military aviation and has travelled to over 60 countries researching articles and taking action photos for his work. For 12 years, he was the Editor of AirForces Monthly magazine in the UK, before opting to go freelance. He has also written several books, including two on the current Pakistan Air Force in 2008 and 2017, and the most recently on 100 years of Aero Vodochody.