Over the next decade the Czech Air Force is set to transform itself into a sleeker, more modern force. Since joining NATO 20 years ago, the relatively small air arm has been trying to catch up with some of the more established air forces’ capabilities.
Regardless, it has become an established and enthusiastic member of NATO by participating in many exercises like Hot Blade and Ample Strike, held at Namest nad Oslavou this year, and operations in Iceland and Baltics whenever possible. Undoubtedly, the air force makes a little go a long way – with a small fleet of 14 GRIPENs manning two QRAs in Amari, Estonia and Caslav, Czech Republic.
Czech Air Force Commander Major General Petr Hromek told the author in September 2019; “Now it’s not just NATO that could ask for support but the EU, too and so I have to ensure that, as the force provider and force user, I am prepared for any eventuality and that means we have to modernise.”
Since joining NATO in 1999, the Czech Air Force has been transformed and now is a reliable NATO partner standing alongside the more established militaries. In 2005, the CzAF signed a lease deal with Saab for 12 single-seat JAS 39Cs and 2 dual-seat JAS 39Ds, which in 2015 was extended to 2027, with an option for another two years. Last year they were updated with the Mission System (MS) 20 which has brought new capabilities. “It has brought a lot,” the Commander told me. “We now operate with LITENING pods, have Have-Quick radios and are all set for the introduction of Link 16 and Night Vision Goggles early next year.”
The 211 Sqn GRIPENs’ main role is defending Czech air space, for which they are on around-the-clock Quick Reaction Alert (QRA), equipped with AIM-9M SIDEWINDERs as well as the 27mm Mauser gun. They can also carry up to four AIM-120C5 AMRAAMs but they have only been used for the Iceland Air Patrol (which the Czechs have manned three times) and the Baltic Air Policing (three times). Five GRIPENs deployed to Ämari in Estonia during late August, for a four months BAP stint that will end on December 30. While the LITENING pods have allowed GRIPENs to train with JTACs (Joint Terminal Air Controllers) during their BAP commitment they will be used for a new role, for long range air-to-air identification, so they don’t have to get so close to intercepted aircraft while a full motion video is included as well.
As a result of the BAP detachment, the GRIPEN pilots have been trying to get current in the air-to-air refuelling role, which has proved difficult. Plans to train with a USAF KC-135R for a week in April as well as a Swedish Air Force C-130H HERCULES tanker in mid-May never came off because the aircraft couldn’t make it. “It has been frustrating,” the Commander told me, “but we are hoping in the longer term to fix this. Signing up to the MMF [Multinational Multirole Tanker Transport Fleet] in late October should help.”
As part of the agreement, the Czech Air Force will be able to use 100 flying hours of NATO’s eight strong A330 MRTT fleet. “We plan to use the aircraft for transport as well as air-to-air refuelling, which will benefit the GRIPEN fleet’s capabilities.” However, the AAR needs are not set to finish there, as the Chief added, “I have also been discussing with the German Air Force Commander, to work with his AAR equipped A400Ms. Of course there is some way to go yet, because the GRIPEN has to be certified as an A400M receiver which Saab will do. But I am positive it will happen.”
On a future GRIPEN replacement, the Commander is now setting up an office to start looking at a JAS 39C/D successor, which could come as early as 2027 or 2029 at the latest. “It is important we start looking at all eventualities, and we hope to have a team in place next year, to start evaluating all the options by late 2020 or early 2021. There has a long lead-in time when buying new platforms so we have to ensure we order them several years ahead.”
In the past the Czech Air Force was gain to have two GRIPENs squadrons, but has stuck to one due to budget constraints that are augmented by a squadron of L-159s. The 16 strong single-seat L-159 fleet is now going through a CZK1.6Bn maintenance contract, announced at the International Defence and Security Technologies (IDET) Fair in Brno on 29 May 2019. The Commander continues, “This will be the L-159’s second eight-year overhaul and allows them to continue into service for the foreseeable future.”
That ensures they remain flying until 2028/29 when a new fighter should be introduced into service, and could well open up the possibility of a two squadron purchase, of whatever the new platform will be. That would be quite a prize for a manufacturer.
As well as maintenance, there will also be several upgrades to the L-159s. One of them is the modernisation of the NVG (night vision goggles) system and adapting the cockpit for internal and external lighting. It will make sure the whole L-159 fleet is NVG compatible. Another upgrade is the installation of an Electronic Standby Instrument System (ESIS), to substitute several standby instruments and provide the pilot with attitude, airspeed, altitude, vertical speed and heading data in the event of a panel failure. Aero has already installed the ESIS to the five L-159T1s. These are being used to streamline the current lead in fighter training set-up, and have been joined by three new L-159T2s. The Commander added. “They were all delivered earlier this year and are now being used to train the pilots.”
On the basic jet training system, run by LOM Praha’s CLV, the current seven L-39Cs are now in the twilight of their career and a replacement has to be ordered soon. The Czech Air Force Chief told the author, “These aircraft have enough hours on them to continue until 2022/23,” and he added, “We hope that CLV will acquire four L-39NGs for our use – we know they are trying to find the appropriate funding to do this. We need them.”
Aero Vodochody does not yet have any orders for the trainer version of the L-39NG, although the there are four light attack versions for a Senegal Air Force requirement. Needless to say, the Czech aerospace company is keen the domestic market purchases the new jet trainer, for ensure future export success.
On the helicopter front, the Czech MoD announced in mid-August that the Bell UH-1Y VIPER and AH-1Z VENOM had been selected to replace its fleet of Mi-24V/Mi-35 Hinds. The deal reputedly worth $622M is according to the Commander, “expected to be finalised by the end of November, or failing that by the end of year with deliveries expected by the end of 2023.”
This marks the first sale of the pair to an export customer, and was selected ahead of an offer of 12 armed Lockheed Martin/Sikorsky UH-60M BLACK HAWKs. While its believed the BLACK HAWK deal was cheaper, the Czech MoD wanted a specialised attack helicopter. Both the AH-1Z and UH-1Y share around 85% commonality, greatly reducing the logistics and maintenance costs. Operationally, they will also work together with the AH-1Zs providing air support for UH-1Ys and the troops inside and will be based where the Mi-24/35s are currently housed, at Namest nad Oslavou.
The Commander added, “Spares for the Mi-24/35s are increasingly difficult to acquire and we had to look at new options. We hope to keep the Mi-24/35s flying until around 2025, when the new helicopters will be fully operational.”
There are currently 15 of these Russian attack helicopters flying with the Czech Air Force, the six Mi-24Vs delivered in 2003 were joined by ten Mi-35s between April 2005 and January 2006 although one has since been lost. “We recently received two Mi-24/35s from LOM Praha where they are overhauled and there are currently four there now,” said the Commander. Recently the Mi-24/35s were on exercise in the Pyrenees with the Mi-17ShMs for mountain training. While the operational use of the Mi-24/35s now have an end-date, the Mi17/171S are expected to soldier on until at least 2030 the Commander told ESD. Already aerospace companies have their options in mind, and with that in mind Leonardo Helicopters attended the NATO AirDays show at Ostrava on September 20-21, to promote the AW101.
Ten smaller PZL SOKOL W3A also serve the CzAF, with six of them configured for the SAR mission based at Pilzen-Line. The remainder are based at Kbely CLV Pardubice fly four Enstrom 480B-Gs for helicopter flying training which replaced the Mi-2s because spares and support from Russian Helicopters were so expensive. One continues to soldier on for airshows and special occasions until Pardubice show next May; then it will be retired.
The bulk of the transport requirements are fulfilled by four Airbus C295Ms delivered in 2010, but the fleet is hard pushed to meet its operational tasking. “We have ordered two more which should be delivered in early 2021, to assist with our paratrooping tasks. The fleet is stretched, because we also have an aircraft in the Sinai serving MFO [Multinational Force and Observers] mission since 2013.”
MFO soldiers have been observing the peace between Egypt and Israel since 1982, and the C295 is normally used to shuttle personnel between the two MFO bases, Sharm el Sheikh and the northern base in El Gorah.
There has also been one on overhaul in recent years. All the Czech C295Ms are overhauled in Poland at PZL Warszawa-Okecie, which is a subsidiary of Airbus. According to the Commander, “the fourth aircraft to be overhauled there will return in November to get the fleet back to strength.”
There are also remains the matter of the Embraer KC390, which the Czech Government committed to in September 2010, and is expected to acquire two.
However, nearly a decade on Aero Vodochody has worked on building five rear fuselages for the Brazilian Aerospace giant but there has still been no order forthcoming. “The KC390 is still on the table, and we may acquire it around 2025.”
The Commander also discussed more about other existing platforms within the transport fleet. “The two Yakovlev Yak-40s will be retired by the end of next year, and replaced by a second business jet aircraft which should arrive by the end of this year. It will work alongside the Bombardier Challenger 601 and two Airbus A319CJs.”
Major General Hromek also confirmed that the CzAF is still operating six LET L-410s for VIP and general transport purposes.
The Airbus A319CJs regularly shuttled personnel to the two Air Advisory Teams based in Kabul (Afghanistan) and Balad (Iraq) but Major General Hromek confirmed that both activities had ended. In Kabul the unit’s primary task was to train and advise pilots and ground personnel of the Afghan National Army air force on the Mi-17. After more than ten years, the team completed its operations which led to the 311th International Air Advisory squadron to officially cease operations on January 29, this year. At Balad the AAT provided advisory and mentoring activities during operational training of Iraqi Air Force’s air and ground personnel flying and maintaining the L-159 ALCA.
NATO Collaborative Programmes
While the Chief confirmed the Czech Air Force would join MMF he also said the Czech Republic was a partner in the Allied Ground Surveillance (AGS) system being set up in Sigonella, Sicily. “We are allowing the GLOBAL HAWK to fly through our airspace, so we are a partner but we are not sending any personnel to the facility to work.” However, he did confirm that there were personnel working on NATO’s AEW&C Force at Geilenkirchen.
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.