Battle escalates over future Czech fighter contract as Gripen deal runs down

Fighter manufacturers are preparing to battle for the right to provide the planes that should protect Czech airspace after 2015

Companies|Foreign Affairs
Martin Shabu | 14.09.2011
A fight between the Gripen JAS-39 and F-16 to patrol Czech airspace looks on the cards

The clock is ticking down to the expiry of the 2015 contract under which JAS-39 Gripen supersonic jet fighters hired from the Swedish government to protect Czech skies. And while the date might still seem a long way off, speculation has been mounting about whether a deal for the Gripen planes will be renewed or another fighter plane chosen.

With budget cuts among the center-right government coalition’s biggest priorities, there is also talk of whether a new contract for fighters could be dropped altogether with some cheaper option found to protect Czech airspace. Czech Prime Minister Petr Nečas (Civic Democrats, ODS) has played a leading role in the mounting debate and seems to have taken a stance against extending a Gripen deal in favor of Czech skies being protected by US fighters.

While most Czech pilots and the Czech army appear satisfied with the Gripen planes and keen to extend the deal, the future of the planes in Czech skies is tied up in the past and suspicions that massive bribes were used by the British-Swedish consortium of BAE Systems-SAAB when trying to land a Kč 60 billion deal to sell 24 JAS-39 fighters in 1999 through 2001. That deal was dumped by the Czech parliament in 2003 in favor of the ongoing leasing agreement with the Swedish government for 14 planes at a cost of around Kč 20 billion.    

Nečas warned in June that it would be difficult to conceive of the Gripen contract being extended when a Czech corruption investigation about the original Gripen sale has still to be concluded and with the suspicions still outstanding. Nečas also won a pledge from his British counterpart, David Cameron that he would insure the UK’s Serious Fraud Office (SFO) would give Czech investigators every help possible on their stalled investigation. Documents from the SFO were delivered at the start of August.

PM’s Gripen doubts

Some might say that Nečas’ actions are merely a manifestation of the government’s anti-corruption crusade and his keenness to clear-up what could turn out to be one of the biggest graft cases in this country’s history. But his past comments about Gripen planes reveal clear misgivings about them. “Gripens have not yet been tested in combat, do no communicate with the technical equipment of NATO states and have half of the range of the F-16 because they cannot refuel in-flight,” the Czech prime minister commented in the past. Some suggest Nečas is playing a cunning tactical game to get the best deal possible from the Gripen manufacturers.

Highly-placed officials within the Ministry of Defense have confirmed to Czech Position that Nečas would like to see US fighter planes in the frame and is therefore taking steps to push BAE Systems and Gripen into a corner. US bids to protect Czech airspace could involve F-16s from Lockheed Martin or F-18s from Boeing.

Others suggest that Nečas is playing a cunning tactical game to get the best deal possible from the Gripen manufacturers. Either way, it is almost certain that some sought of decision on the protection of Czech airspace will be taken under the current government.

‘The Americans are discarding F-16s because they are moving to the F-35 [and] can offer them to allies in neat packages at bargain prices.’

From the US side, F-16 planes for the Czechs could be a low cost and profitable transaction for a favored ally. “The Americans are discarding F-16s because they are moving to the F-35. They will have thousands around the world which they will want to get rid of. They can offer them to allies in neat packages at bargain prices,” a source close to the Defense Ministry, who asked not to be named, confirmed.

Nečas’ spokesman denied he is taking any sides. “The prime minister has repeated that it is necessary to carry out a detailed analysis if and in what form the air force should take. At the moment, there is no hurry to take a decision. No preferences have been mentioned. I do not in any way want to respond to rumored ‘decisive’ declarations made by Prime Minister Nečas,” Jan Osúch said.

As well as the Gripens, F-16s and F-18s, other fighters mentioned in the past by the Defense Ministry as possible contenders to patrol the Czech skies are the Rafale produced by French arms company Dassault and the supersonic Eurofighter Typhoon from the consortium of EADS, Italy’s Alenia Aeronautica, and BAE Systems.

Decision deadline

The argument that there is no hurry for the Czech government to take a decision on a future fighter is contested by air force chief, Brigadier-General Jiří Verner. He points out that if a decision is made to switch to another plane than the Gripen then at least two years would be needed to train pilots to use it. “That is not an estimate, that is the experience of the Austrian and German air forces,” he added. As well as training, ground bases would also have to be adapted to a new plane, Verner pointed out.

“Logistics will have to be tailored to the change taking place and this will bring extra costs which are far from negligible. The 10-year contract for logistical support for the Gripens has worked almost flawlessly; I do not personally know of such a contract from the past or present that was so well tuned,” Verner added.

Past experience and military textbooks bear out the warning with technical back-up for aircraft on the ground often making up around 60 percent of overall equipment costs and the remaining 40 percent covering the purchase of the aircraft themselves.

Verner says that the army is fully satisfied with the Gripen deal, which, he says, has helped the Czech Republic become a respected member of NATO.

No low-cost option

Meanwhile, the former Czech Social Democrat (ČSSD) prime minister, Vladimír Špidla, who piloted the eventual Gripen hire deal with Sweden, warns that any thoughts of cutting costs by having no Czech fighter protection at all should be discarded.

“If we weren’t able to patrol airspace ourselves, the [NATO] alliance would not be able to leave a hole of around 80,000 square kilometers. We would have to hire out the services of another air force. Mostly likely it would be the Germans or Poles. Of course, this would come at a price. Any state hiring out such services would seek payment for them so that it did not lose out,” Špidla told Czech Position.

The Gripens had relatively low operating costs and the best solution for the future would be to stick with the Swedish planes, he added. The costs of F-16s were several times higher, he said, and he had information that the Polish army had problems with their planes. “To put it bluntly, they don’t fly that much with them. They have long disadvantageous periods between maintenance and flight deployment,” Špidla added. 

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