War In Ukraine Pushes Czechs To Buy F-35s
With an eye on the war raging in Ukraine, the Czech Republic looks set to become the next member of the growing European F-35 community.
The Czech Republic could well become the latest operator of the F-35 stealth jet, with the government in Prague declaring that the Lockheed Martin product is its preferred choice as its future fighter. If the proposed purchase goes through, it will continue the Joint Strike Fighter’s formidable sales record in Europe and spell bad news for Sweden, which reportedly offered the Gripens that the Czechs currently lease “almost free of charge.”
Using the backdrop of the war in Ukraine, and the surrounding tensions in Eastern Europe, as reasoning for its decision, the Czech government confirmed today that it would begin negotiations with the United States, with a view to buying 24 F-35s — enough for two squadrons. That in itself is a significant move, with the Czech Air Force currently only operating a single squadron of JAS 39C/D Gripens — 12 single-seaters and a pair of two-seaters.
The Czech Prime Minister Petr Fiala also confirmed that the country was preparing to begin talks about the purchase of new CV90 Mk IV armored fighting vehicles (AFVs) from BAE Systems’ Swedish subsidiary. That replaces a protracted project to buy 210 AFVs, for which BAE Systems Hägglunds, General Dynamics European Land Systems (GDELS), and Rheinmetall were in the running.
“This is another step to modernize the army and meet our alliance commitments,” Fiala told a news conference shown live on television, according to Reuters. “These are important decisions at a time when the security of Europe and the Czech Republic faces new challenges caused by Russia’s aggression in Ukraine.”
The Czech Defense Minister Jana Cernochova confirmed that the country was seeking 24 F-35s, presumably of the conventional takeoff and landing (CTOL) F-35A variant, and that talks were expected to be concluded by October 2023.
There does not appear to have been any plan to run a competition for a new fighter, with the F-35 seemingly having been selected without an open contest.
The Czech Gripens were delivered to Caslav airbase in the course of 2005 under a leasing deal signed the previous year. The latest extension to that deal, signed in 2014, keeps the Gripens in service until 2027, although there’s an option to extend it by another two years. Interestingly, there had been plans to field 24 Gripens, but economic woes after the serious flooding of 2003 put those plans to rest.
In the past, however, it was reported that Sweden offered Prague to keep the Gripens after the end of their lease “almost free of charge,” according to the Seznam Zpravy news website. “It is possible to transfer these currently leased aircraft to the Czech Republic at essentially zero cost,” Sweden’s ambassador to the Czech Republic, Fredrik Jörgensen, told the same website. “They’ve basically already been paid for, it’s like leasing a car.”
Another apparent option was to replace the first-generation Gripens with the far more capable JAS 39E/F Gripen version.
The Czech defense minister previously confirmed that the final decision would fall upon “the expert recommendation of the Armed Forces,” who, in this instance seems to have clearly rejected the Gripen, despite the reportedly very attractive economic terms. There has also been political support for the F-35 buy ahead of the decision, too.
“Let’s get our Armed Forces the best there is on the market,” said Jan Bartosek, the 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 have been more circumspect, Radovan Vich from the SPD party claiming that a single Gripen flight hour costs around $5,000 compared to around $30,000 for the F-35.
If the deal goes through and the numbers remain the same, the Czechs would also, remarkably, be acquiring the highly costly F-35 at the same time as increasing their frontline fighter fleet. Previously, the opposite has been the case, with NATO air arms scaling back their fighter numbers to accommodate the financial burden of the F-35.
Aside from doubling the fighter force, switching from the Gripen to the F-35 makes clear sense in terms of enhancing capabilities, trading a modestly upgraded ‘generation 4’ fighter for a fifth-generation one with stealth characteristics and the option of including advanced standoff weaponry
“The F-35 Lightning II will represent a highly competitive aircraft even in 2040, whereas the so-called 4+ generation of fighters will have become obsolete by then,” explained Maj. Gen. Karel Rehka, Chief of General Staff in the Czech Republic. “In addition, the F-35 is not just a fighter — it provides an aerial capability combining a fighter, air defense element, as well as cutting-edge surveillance and command, control and communication center while being part of a broad network of ‘internet of things’ including unmanned aerial vehicles and is able to perform missions that are completely outside the capabilities of the current aircraft.”
As well as overall capability, the F-35 brings much in the way of 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 United Kingdom have all ordered the F-35. Greece and Germany are highly likely to follow suit, and outside of NATO, Switzerland has also selected it. Meanwhile, buying CV90s also aligns with Slovakian plans, providing an opportunity for closer cooperation with its neighbor.
Acquiring F-35s would also continue something of a ‘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 considering adding to those totals. The U.S. helicopters will replace Soviet-era Mi-8/17 Hip and Mi-24/35 Hind series aircraft, with some of the Hinds already having been donated to Ukraine.
The current Czech Gripen fleet is primarily used for air defense. Locally, the jets provide coverage of both the Czech Republic and neighboring Slovakia, under a bilateral agreement. They have also been 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 normally are fitted with heat-seeking AIM-9M Sidewinder missiles and the onboard cannon for air policing duties.
Aside from its Gripens, the Czech Air Force also flies 16 single-seat L-159A Advanced Light Combat Aircraft, or ALCA, and five of the two-seat L-159T1 version. These subsonic jets are used mainly for light attack and close support and have had little in the way of upgrades. They are also used for conversion training, although they are hardly very suitable for bringing pilots up to speed in the much more advanced F-35 cockpit.
At this stage, it’s not clear if the F-35s would replace the ALCAs, too, but judging by the numbers involved, that is a strong possibility. There’s certainly a question as to whether Caslav would be able to accommodate the growing F-35 force, and the contracting Gripen fleet, plus the ALCAs, without having to reactivate a second fighter base.
As to when F-35s might become available, that’s currently unclear and no official statement has yet been forthcoming from the U.S. government or from Lockheed. While the Czechs may wish to have the new aircraft in service by 2027, that may well be unrealistic, based on delivery schedules and training requirements, in which case the Gripen lease may be extended to 2029.
In June of this year, Lockheed Martin said that it could provide Germany with its first F-35s in 2026. At the same time, the company 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 buying and, above all, sustaining these jets is high and can increase considerably depending on the weapons options chosen. Plans to increase military expenditure to 2 percent of the gross domestic product should help. Overall, Prague has decided in favor of high-end capabilities to help face off the perceived growing threat from Russia, rather than the cost-effectiveness and maintainability of the Gripen. After all, with a fleet of just 14 jets, the Czech Air Force has managed in the past to have simultaneous quick reaction alert detachments in both the Czech Republic (also covering Slovakian airspace) and in the Baltic States, as well as covering maintenance demands.
While there are still formalities ahead of the Czech Republic getting the F-35s it wants, and while the final numbers of jets may eventually differ, it seems clear that the Joint Strike Fighter’s presence in Europe is going from strength to strength.
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