The war in Ukraine pushes the Czechs to buy F-35s

The Czech Republic may well become the latest operator of the F-35 stealth jet, with the government in Prague declaring the Lockheed Martin product its preferred choice as a future fighter. If the proposed purchase goes through, it will continue the Joint Strike Fighter’s formidable sales record in Europe and be bad news for Sweden, which has reportedly offered the Gripens the Czechs are currently renting “almost for free”.

Against the backdrop of the war in Ukraine and surrounding tensions in Eastern Europe, the Czech government confirmed today that it will enter into negotiations with the United States to purchase 24 F-35s – enough for two squadrons. This in itself is a significant decision, as the Czech Air Force currently operates only one squadron of JAS 39C/D Gripens – 12 single-seaters and a pair of two-seaters.

A pair of Czech Air Force JAS 39C Gripen fighter jets. Jan Kouba, Ministry of Defense and Armed Forces of the Czech Republic

Czech Prime Minister Petr Fiala has also confirmed that the country is preparing to start discussions on the purchase of new CV90 Mk IV armored fighting vehicles (AFV) from the Swedish subsidiary of BAE Systems. which replaces a extended project to buy 210 AFVs, for which BAE Systems Hägglunds, General Dynamics European Land Systems (GDELS) and Rheinmetall were in the running.

“It’s another step to modernize the army and meet our alliance commitments,” Fiala said in a press conference broadcast live on television. according Reuters. “These are important decisions at a time when the security of Europe and the Czech Republic is facing new challenges caused by Russia’s aggression in Ukraine.”

Czech Defense Minister Jana Cernochova confirmed that the country was seeking 24 F-35s, presumably of the conventional take-off and landing (CTOL) F-35A variant, and that talks were to be concluded by October 2023.

Czech Minister of Defense Jana Cernochova during a bilateral meeting with US Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III at the Pentagon, Washington, DC, April 21, 2022. DoD photo by Lisa Ferdinando

There does not appear to have been any plan to hold a competition for a new fighter, the F-35 having apparently been selected without an open competition.

The Czech Gripens were delivered to the Caslav Air Base in the 2005 year under a lease agreement signed the previous year. The latest extension to that deal, signed in 2014, keeps the Gripens in service until 2027, although there is a possibility of extending it for another two years. Interestingly, there had been plans to field 24 Gripens, but economic difficulties after severe flooding in 2003 put those plans to rest.

In the past, however, there have been reports of Sweden offering Prague to keep the Gripens after their lease ends “almost for free”. according the Seznam Zpravy news site. “It is possible to transfer these currently leased planes to the Czech Republic at almost no cost,” Sweden’s Ambassador to the Czech Republic, Fredrik Jörgensen, told the same website. “They’ve already been paid, it’s like renting a car.”

Another apparent option was to replace the first generation Gripens with the much more capable JAS 39E/F Gripen version.

A pair of JAS 39E Gripens. Saab

The Czech defense minister had previously confirmed that the final decision would come down to “the recommendation of experts from the armed forces”, which in this case seems to have clearly rejected the Gripen, despite apparently very attractive economic conditions. There was also political support for purchasing the F-35 before the decision.

“Let’s give our armed forces the best on the market”, said Jan Bartosek, deputy speaker of the Czech House of Representatives, last month. “The [F-35] platform makes sense to me because a number of neighboring states will have it.

Other political figures were more circumspect, Radovan Vich of the SPD party affirming that a single hour of Gripen flight costs about $5,000 compared to about $30,000 for the F-35.

If the deal is done and the numbers stay the same, the Czechs would also, remarkably, acquire the very expensive F-35 while increasing their fleet of frontline fighters. Previously, the reverse had happened, with NATO air arms reducing their number of fighters to meet the financial burden of the F-35.

In addition to doubling the fighter force, switching from the Gripen to the F-35 makes perfect sense in terms of capability upgrades, swapping a slightly upgraded ‘Generation 4’ fighter for a fifth generation fighter with Stealth features and the ability to include advanced deadlock weapons

“The F-35 Lightning II will represent a highly competitive aircraft even in 2040, when the so-called 4+ generation of fighters will have become obsolete by then.” Explain Major General Karel Rehka, Chief of the General Staff in the Czech Republic. “Furthermore, the F-35 is not just a fighter – it offers an air capability combining a fighter, an air defense element, as well as a state-of-the-art surveillance and command, control and communications center all by being part of a vast network of ‘Internet of Things’, including unmanned aerial vehicles, and is capable of performing missions that are completely outside the capabilities of current aircraft.”

U.S. Air Force F-35As, assigned to the 421st Fighter Squadron, Hill Air Force Base, Utah, taxi on the flight line at Spangdahlem Air Base, Germany, June 2019. U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Valerie Seelye

In addition to its overall capability, the F-35 brings many benefits in terms of sharing a common platform with other NATO members – or future NATO members. In Europe alone, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland and the UK have all ordered the F-35. Greece and Germany are very likely to follow suit, and outside NATO, Switzerland has also picked it. Meanwhile, the purchase of CV90 also aligns with Slovak plans, offering the opportunity for closer cooperation with its neighbor.

The acquisition of F-35s would also continue a kind of “buy American” policy within the Czech Armed Forces. In 2019, Prague ordered four Bell AH-1Z Viper attack helicopters and eight UH-1Y Venom utility rotorcraft and is now consider adding to these totals. The US helicopters will replace Soviet-era Mi-8/17 Hip and Mi-24/35 Hind series aircraft, some of the Hinds having already been donated to Ukraine.

The current Czech Gripen fleet is mainly used for air defense. Locally, the jets cover both the Czech Republic and neighboring Slovakia, under a bilateral agreement. They were also deployed on a rotational basis to protect the airspace of the Baltic States and Iceland. The aircraft can be armed with AIM-120C-5 Advanced Medium-Range Air-to-Air Missiles (AMRAAMs), but is normally equipped with heat-seeking AIM-9M Sidewinder missiles and the on-board gun for air policing duties.

Besides its Gripens, the Czech Air Force also flies 16 L-159A single-seat Advanced Light Combat Aircraft, or ALCA, and five of the two-seat L-159T1 version. These subsonic jets are primarily used for light attack and close support and have had few upgrades. They are also used for conversion training, although they are hardly suitable for upgrading pilots to the much more advanced F-35 cockpit.

A Czech Air Force L-159A Advanced Light Combat Aircraft, or ALCA. Ministry of Defense and Armed Forces of the Czech Republic

At this point, it’s unclear if F-35s would also replace ALCAs, but judging by the numbers involved, it’s a strong possibility. There is certainly a question as to whether Caslav would be able to accommodate the growing force of F-35s and Gripen’s Contracting fleet, as well as ALCAs, without having to reactivate a second fighter base.

An F-16C from the Texas Air National Guard’s 149th Fighter Wing passes a reinforced Cold War aircraft shelter at Caslav Air Force Base after a flight. USAF Photo by Capt Randy Saldivar

As for when the F-35s might become available, that’s not yet clear, and no official statement has yet been made by the US government or Lockheed. Although the Czechs want the new aircraft to be in service by 2027, that may well be unrealistic, depending on delivery schedules and training needs, in which case the Gripen’s lease could be extended until 2029.

In June of this year, Lockheed Martin said that it could supply Germany with its first F-35s in 2026. At the same time, the company has identified the Czech Republic and Greece as potential new European customers for the jet.

It remains to be seen how realistic Prague’s plans to buy 24 F-35s are. After all, the cost of purchasing and especially maintaining these jets is high and can increase significantly depending on the armament options chosen. Plans to raise military spending to 2% of gross domestic product should help. Overall, Prague opted for high-end capabilities to help deal with the perceived growing threat from Russia, rather than the economics and maintainability of the Gripen. After all, with a fleet of just 14 jets, the Czech Air Force has in the past managed to simultaneously have rapid reaction alert detachments in the Czech Republic (also covering Slovak airspace) and in the Baltic States, as well as to cover maintenance requests. .

A Czech Air Force pilot flies a JAS 39C Gripen. Jan Kouba, Ministry of Defense and Armed Forces of the Czech Republic

Although there are still formalities before the Czech Republic gets the F-35s it wants, and although the final number of planes may possibly differ, it seems clear that the presence of the Joint Strike Fighter in Europe is going from strength to strength.

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