Modernisation is the biggest challenge for the Slovak Air Force Commander, Brigadier Lubomír Svoboda. He told ESD recently: “We have acquired two C-27J SPARTANs, taken delivery of three UH-60Ms with another three due in a few weeks, and three more before the end of the year.” He went on, “We signed the biggest contract in the history of the Slovak Air Force [worth around US$1.6Bn] for 14 F-16s and are now looking at GBADs [Ground Based Air Defences].”
Svoboda, a transport aircraft pilot, became the Commander in July 2017 and since then much of his time has been taking up looking at how the new acquisitions are going to fit in.
It was over ten years ago, on 22 December 2008, that the Slovak MoD announced the C-27J had been selected as its future tactical transport aircraft. The decision came nearly three years after one of the two Antonov An-24RV had crashed on 19 January 2006, claiming the lives of 42 of the 43 personnel on board. The aircraft was returning to its home base at Kosice from Pristina, with 28 soldiers on board who had been serving KFOR (Kosovo Force). According to a subsequent accident investigation report the pilot had descended too early in the dark towards the lights of Kosice. Regardless the age of these two aircraft that had served the Czechoslovak Air Force and then Slovak Air Force for nearly 40 years, the accident led to the second An-24RV being withdrawn from use in 2007. It was another ten years, before both of the Antonov An-26 CURL which had joined the Czechoslovakian Air Force in 1986 and 1987, were retired in 2016.
By then, the C-27Js had still not arrived. Protracted negotiations for the two aircraft meant it was nearly six years after the selection had been made that a multi-million-dollar contract for two C-27Js was signed.
The first aircraft was delivered to Malacky-Kuchnya to serve with 1st Transport Flight on 24 October 2017, some 49 days later than the contract stipulated, and was followed by the second on 9 April 2018. A delay in the deliveries meant that the Slovak MoD received nearly €900M in compensation.
Working alongside the C-27Js at Malacky-Kuchnya are a small number of LET L410s serving the 2nd Transport Flight in the light transport and para-trooping roles. Four L-410-UVP-E20s were delivered between 2009 and 2013.
When it comes to fighters and defending defending Slovak airspace, Svoboda has a bigger headache because the Slovak Air Force is operating only a handful of old MiG-29AS and at least one MiG-29UB. “We will keep these jets until the F-16s are delivered,” and he added: “Last year, the MoD signed a new contract with the Russians [Rosboronexport] to provide spares support and overhaul until 2023, when the F-16s arrive.”
That’s going to be a tall order, but the Commander was confident that the MiG-29AS and MiG-29UB will soldier on until then. Unfortunately, a MiG-29AS crashed on 29 September during a training flight. The pilot ejected and although he was hospitalised later, there were no life threatening injuries. Initial reports say the jet, which went through a major overhaul in 2015, ran out of fuel. Bad weather and poor visibility meant the pilot could not land the aircraft at Sliac and instead opted to land at Bratislava Airport but didn’t make it.
The SAF upgraded 12 MiG-29A/UB FULCRUMs under a programme dating back to 2005, that included RAC (now RSK) MiG and several western companies. LOK Trencin (LOTN) mediated between RAC and Rockwell during the programme to overcome the security sensitivities of a US company working with a Russian one. The upgrade included new radios, TACAN, anti-collision lights and IFF. In the cockpit, the old gauges were replaced by MFDs developed by Ruska Avionika. RAC MiG Chief Test pilot, Pavel Vlasov flew the first modified MiG-29 in September 2007. Some of the old Cold War jets also received a new digital style colour scheme.
The recent crash means the SAF has barely enough MiG-29AS to man anything but the QRA. If need be, Slovakia could call upon the neighbouring Czech Air Force and its JAS 39C GRIPENs to defend its air space as part of a co-operation agreement signed by both sides in early 2017.
So GRIPENs flying in Slovak airspace is still an option even if the Slovak government signed a contract for 12 Block 70 F-16Cs and 2 F-16Ds on 12 December 2018. The decision came as major blow to Saab, not just because it hoped to add Slovakia to the Czech Republic and Hungary as NATO GRIPEN operators, but because of a politically motivated and damning evaluation report which put the jet in a poor light.
The US$1.6Bn cost for the 14 new fighters includes a weapons package that the Defence Security Cooperation Agency (DSCA) disclosed as including 30 AIM120-C7 advanced medium range air to air missiles (AMRAAMs), and 100 AIM-9X SIDEWINDER air-to-air missiles. For the air to ground role, the SAF is set to acquire 224 500lb GBU-12 PAVEWAY II, 20 500lb GBU-49 Enhanced PAVEWAY II and 150 500lb Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM).
The Block 70 houses the brand new Northrop Grumman AN/APG-83 Scalable Agile Beam Radar and AN/ALQ-211 Advanced Integrated Defensive Electronic Warfare Management Systems, as well as upgraded displays and avionics suite. The new build Block 70s will have their service life extended to 12,000 hours from the 8,000 hours on current F-16 fleets. The new generation F-16 will provide the SAF with a huge leap in capability.
At the Slovak International Air Festival (SIAF) 2018 held at Sliač Air Base, where the MiG-29s are based, Lockheed Martin’s F-16 Campaign Lead in Slovakia, Michael N Kelley told the author: “The Slovak F-16s will come off the production facility, now being set up at Greenville in South Carolina, and will be delivered 39 months after the deal is signed.” Kelley continued, “The first two aircraft, F-16Ds, will be handed over in the USA and are expected to go to Tucson ANGB, Arizona for pilot and maintenance training. The first ferry cell should arrive in Sliač during March/April 2023.”
As part of the deal, 22 Slovak Air Force pilots will commence flying training on F-16 Block 52s at Tucson ANGB, Arizona in 2022 before progressing to the Slovak F-16 Block 70s. According to Brigadier Svoboda “the first six pilots will leave for the USA in October,” but as another source told the author, these are to commence with training in the English language before heading to basic flying training.
Old Pilots, Old Jet Trainers
Another quandary, the Commander faces is the age of the MiG-29 pilots. Svoboda said, “Many of them are 40 now, so will not be transferred to the F-16s. Instead most will come from the L-39s, currently used for lead in fighter training at Sliač. We can use the MiG-29 pilots and their flying skills as instructor pilots with the training unit, and the eventually any new aircraft (that we) buy.”
Like the MiG-29s and the pilots, the L-39s are also getting old now, but the Commander believes they can last for another six years. He told ESD, “We are starting to detail our needs for a next generation trainer as well as a budget and we are looking at all the options out there.”
Seven L-39ZAs and six L-39Cs were modified and overhauled by LOT Trencin (LOTN) from 2005 to 2009. The mods included the installation of two new multifunction displays (MFDs), and new antennas visible under the fuselage.
Many acknowledge, stepping from a 70s-era L-39 to fly a cutting edge F-16 Block 70 might be too much for some. With no new jet trainer acquisition programme in place yet, and the first F-16s expected to arrive in 2023, the SAF are in a hurry to find a solution. Although funding and priorities remain a sticking point, as Svoboda pointed out, “A new Ground Based Air Defence system is a priority – a new trainer will come later.”
The SAF has a requirement for up to eight new trainers and at Sliač, where the Slovak International Air Festival was held on 3-4 August this year, several of the European manufacturers were exhibiting their solutions at the event. Aero was showing off its L-39CW, used as the L-39NG test-bed. Aero’s Head of Sales, Jakub Hoda told the author, “We are offering the L-39NG and there have been some very good discussions with the SAF. We are focussed on not just working with the customer but involving its industry in the NG co-operation.” He added, “We have had a long history with LOT Trencin on the L-29 and L-39 in the past. The Slovakian Defence Minister Peter Gajdoš even supported us with our request for European development funding, to support the NG’s development.”
So far no SAF pilots have flown the L-39CW or L-39NG, but it’s sure to happen soon. After a nine month lay-off, the L-39NG took to the air again on 14 September. During its grounding, new Genesys avionics were integrated in preparation for the Elbit embedded training system later in the year. Aero has now embarked on an ambitious test programme that should see the L-39NG certified by the end of next year.
Leonardo was showing off its M-345 jet trainer at Sliač, with Gaetano Ferlazzo Head of Eastern Europe Marketing telling the author, “Slovakia could buy them, or could join the Italian Flight Training School at Lecce-Galatina where the M-345 will be based.” The first five of 18 M345s are expected to enter Italian Air Force service in early 2020.
Outsourcing Basic Flying Training
There is currently no basic flying training within the Slovak Air Force; instead it is being outsourced to a civilian organisation operating Diamond Da20 KATANA. The student pilots then progress to the L-39ZAM/CM.
Grob are offering the G120TP turboprop trainer present as an option that could replace the older civilian Da20s and part of the L-39ZAM/CM training. The German company’s Test and Instructor Pilot Tom Reinert told ESD, “We could offer the aircraft as a first step, before progressing to the L-39NG and then the F-16. There are similar synergies between the two trainers, the Genesys avionics system exists in both platforms and the solution would be affordable.”
Reinert flew five SAF pilots as well as the Slovak Prime Minister, Petra Pellegriniho in the G120TP after the recent Sliač show ended.
A handful of old Mi-17Ms are still being operated by the 2nd Transport Helicopter Squadron at Presov. An additional four Mi-17LPZS, converted from the original troop carrying Mi-17M, are flown by the Search and Rescue Flight at Sliač. All the Mi-2 HOPLITEs and Mi-24s have been retired in recent years.
With the introduction into service of nine new UH-60M BLACK HAWKs, the helicopter force is now entering a new era. A contract for four awarded via a foreign military sales contract in August 2015 led to a pair being delivered to the 1st Helicopter Squadron at Presov in August 2017. Defence Minister, Peter Gadjo said at the formal handover ceremony that they would be used for training, to support land forces and special operations forces, together with domestic crisis management. Back then, four fully trained Slovak aircrews were undergoing training, with six expected to have completed conversion to the type by the end of 2017. A second pair of UH-60Ms followed in July 2018. Another five were subsequently contracted that saw two arriving on a cargo ship at Bremerhaven, Germany, around 24-25 August 2019. They were subsequently delivered to Sliač on 26 August for a handover ceremony before heading to Presov. The final three UH-60Ms will be delivered by the end of the year, with the deal for all nine helicopters valued at around US$261M. Svoboda is keen to get the fleet operational, “we will also eventually arm them for use in the armed assault role.”
A representative from LOTN (Letecké Opravovne Trencin) which is part of the Slovak Defence Ministry, said the company hopes to sign a contract to weaponise the UH-60Ms with 7.62mm machine guns, as well as sign a deal with Lockheed Martin for the logistics support for the F-16s.
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. He has also written several books, including two on the Pakistan Air Force (in 2008 and 2017), and most recently on 100 years of Aero Vodochody.
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