Lithuania shows early interest in L-159 acquisition

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Lithuanian air force leaders have held unofficial discussions with their Czech counterparts over a possible future deal to acquire surplus Aero Vodochody L-159 advanced light combat aircraft. The move comes as Vilnius looks to assess its options for taking responsibility for policing its own airspace from 2018.

Lithuania has operated two Aero Vodochody L-39ZA jet trainer/light attack aircraft since 1998, and had used these for some quick reaction alert (QRA) duties before entering NATO in March 2004. The aircraft are expected to remain in service until at least 2014, having recently undergone overhaul in Romania, but their subsonic performance and lack of radar makes them unsuitable for the air policing role.

While confirming that some "commander-to-commander" talks have been held over the more capable L-159 (below), Lt Col Virginijus Steponavičius, chief of staff at Lithuania's Siauliai air base, says that for the moment "there's no real ambition - it's a dream".

 
© Aero Vodochody

NATO has pledged to continue its QRA service for Baltic states Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania until 2018, with detachment slots already allocated to 2011. "In this time we have to show how we will take over the mission from 2018," says Steponavičius.

"It will maybe be one Baltic squadron with three legs, or possibly taken on rotation." However, given current economic conditions and the Lithuanian air force's small size of only around 420 personnel, it might not be until 2024 that such a handover could take place, he cautions. "Today, we need to make a decision that we need fighters," he says.

Lithuania meanwhile expects to take delivery of its third and last Alenia Aeronautica C-27J Spartan tactical transport this year, with the first two examples having already seen use in support of its personnel serving in Afghanistan (below). The C-27Js have replaced three life-expired Antonov An-26s. The air force's first of two Let L-410 light transports has also recently undergone modernisation, with work to upgrade the second to start soon.

 
© Vida Urbonaite/Lithuanian armed forces

The air force's helicopter inventory comprises nine Mil Mi-8 transports, six of which are in operational condition. Also used to deliver search-and-rescue cover from Aleksotas and Nemirseta air bases, part of the fleet is expected to fly on beyond an overhaul planned for 2017. "There are some plans to buy some new helicopters, but there's no funding for this," says Steponavičius.