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Gabor Szekeres / Budapest

NATO membership has forced a reorganisation of the Hungarian air force, which had already undergone major changes in the past decade

Hungary's air force has gone through fundamental changes in the last decade. It started out operating from six active bases, with seven helicopter, one transport and seven fighter/fighter-bomber units - now, it has just two fighter-bomber, one transport and four helicopter squadrons operating from three active bases and two additional airfields.

Some major fighter types operated in the early 1990s have been retired, with the loss of the strike and reconnaissance capabilities once provided by Sukhoi Su-22 Fitters. Also gone are Mikoyan MiG-21 Fishbeds and Mikoyan MiG-23 Floggers. Many trained pilots and technical staff were also retired. In the past few years the Zlin 43 liaison aircraft, and the small fleet of Let L-410 VIP and aerial mapping aircraft have also been retired, together with the 12 Yakovlev Yak-52 trainers, that formed the backbone of the Szolnok-based flight officers academy.

NATO membership in 1999 led to reorganisation as the defence ministry responded to the new roles required by the alliance. Brig Gen Imre Balogh, commanding officer of the Hungarian air force command, says: "We joined NATO and a long-term 15-20 year integration process started. We are still making the first steps - but at the same time, we have completed 99% of the restructuring of the air force."

The new air force is capable of parallel contacts with NATO departments, and has an identical structure to those in other member states. It has reduced the overall number of units from 12 to eight and consolidated resources. There is one fighter wing with three squadrons, operating RSK MiG-29s and Aero Vodochody L-39ZOs from the Kecskemet. "This fighter wing and the base play an important part within the combined NATO air-defences, providing quick reaction alert duties. The Bakony attack helicopter wing at Szentkiralyszabadja consists of Mil Mi-24s and supporting transport helicopters, while the mixed transport wing at Szolnok has 32 Mi-8 helicopters and four [Antonov] An-26 medium transport aircraft," says Balogh.

The Gyor air-defence brigade includes surface-to-air missile units. The 64th radar and control regiment in Veszpremwas created from three of these and is charged with management and surveillance of Hungarian airspace and fighter control.

Spares shortfalls

One of the regiment's units is responsible for direct contact with NATO air control in Italy. There is also a logistics and supply regiment, in addition to two so-called base airfields at Papa and Taszar.

A long-term, three-stage reorganisation is envisaged for the Hungarian defence forces. The first phase should be completed next year, followed by changes in personnel by 2006. The years to 2010 will see a programme of technical upgrades. "In comparison with other branches of the military we are in a better situation, since we have already started the technical modernisation phase. We are optimistic, since the air force is now on the way up after reaching rock-bottom. After years of stagnation, several development packages were started last year and at the start of this year," Balogh says. Modernisation will include three-dimensional surveillance radar infrastructure work at the airfields. The base at Kecskemet has been transformed from a Russian-style operational system into a modern facility capable of supporting NATO aircraft.

The air force's biggest step forward has been the signing of a 12-year lease deal with the Swedish government for 14 Saab/BAE Systems Gripen fighters, the first of which should be delivered in 2004.

Their arrival will bring a sea-change in training, maintenance and servicing procedures within the air force. Technical personnel will start training next year, to be followed in January 2004 by the first pilots to undergo Gripen conversion training. The Gripen unit will be based at Kecskemet.

In the past, Hungary's financial condition and the shrinking budget resulted in spares shortfalls and an overall reduction in flight hours, cutting air force operations to the minimum. The Gripen will be different. "The leasing deal itself is a guarantee, since we are buying operational time, spare parts and technical service from the Swedish. The Gripens will be operating 140h a year. Taking into account that we will have 14 fighters and plan to have 20 pilots on Gripens, this gives around 100h flight time for each pilot in which they will be able to accomplish 120-130 missions," says Balogh. "Hungary will not reach and does not have to reach the NATO level of 180-200h a year for its pilots. The important thing is to have the NATO required take-off, mission and individual training numbers."

Any given mission in Hungary's constricted airspace takes less time than for many other NATO air forces - a typical Gripen sortie will last only 40-45min. As a result, on both the country's fighter types, Hungarian pilots will have a lower flying time than in other NATO countries, while maintaining the same level of training.

Long-term future

The long-term future of the Gripens beyond the end of the lease will be decided years from now. "There is an option to buy the Gripens at the end of the leasing deal, there could be additional fighters leased as a separate package, but if the state of the Hungarian economy, the armed forces and the air force allow, there could be a change of step to a new level, with the Eurofighter - or other new programmes," says Balogh.

As well as the Gripen deal, there is the equally important 17-year agreement to send pilots to NATO Flying Training in Canada (NFTC). After years without a training programme, the air force is to start training young pilots.

Balogh says this will bring with it "a true change in philosophy from pilots trained under Russian procedures within the Warsaw Pact, to a new generation who have grown up in the young democratic system, and started their flying career with Western technology. This will greatly affect Hungarian defence forces as a whole. The first group of young pilots will arrive home in 2005 - they will be fundamental in initiating the real changes within the air force." A decision has also been taken to reintroduce the Yak-52 as a basic training aircraft. Funds will be allocated this year to overhaul nine of the trainers.

The Yak-52s and the L-39s will be instrumental in the selection process for young applicants and the initial training syllabus before they join the NFTC programme. The 19 remaining L-39ZOs donated by Germany in the mid-1990s will shortly be reaching their fatigue limits. "Negotiations have started with Aero Vodochody to extend the lives of 12 aircraft and to keep them airworthy for another three years. The L-39s will also be used to provide additional flight time for those pilots who have completed a conversion course or finished the NFTC programme, but are still waiting to strap into the MiG-29 or the Gripen," says Balogh.

A deal was also signed last year with Russia under which work started in April on life extensions for 14 MiG-29s. Servicing will be changed from periodic maintenance to technical supervision based on the state of the aircraft. So more flight time will be available and operating costs reduced.

A government decision to distance itself from "eastern military technology" means the MiG-29s should be retired in 2005, the initial operational introduction of the Gripen. The future of the MiG-29s, however, is still not clear, and further decisions are likely in a few years, as there is little question that the Hungarian air force needs at least 40 fighters.

"Now we have signed a deal for 14 Gripens. If there are fewer aircraft available then the number of tasks put before us should also be reduced, but there is a bottom line below which one cannot go," says Balogh. How Hungary will make up the 26 aircraft deficit will be decided in the middle of this decade and depend on how the country's economy performs."

The air force is still using mainly inherited Russian equipment. Most of the aircraft and helicopters are slowly running out of flight time and airframe life cycles but, Balogh says: "We cannot acquire fighters, transport aircraft and helicopters at the same time, so first we dealt with fighters. Talks are going on over upgrading the helicopters to NATO interoperability standard." The Mi-24 Hind attack helicopters should receive new communications and navigation equipment, night-vision capability and anti-armour weapons.

The air force still has unused helicopters. For example, Germany donated 20 Mi-24s, which have been in storage since 1995. Balogh says: "We intend to refurbish a few and put them into service to replace some of our ageing original examples."

Transport decisions

Fixed-wing transport decisions are still needed, but cannot be made until the end of the decade at the earliest. Hungary operates four An-26 medium transports and they will run out of service life by 2010. "Operationally, we need at least four transports, while a fleet of six would be most economical to service. To perform peacekeeping duties, transport requirements, long-range deployments and NATO undertakings, we need new transport aircraft. I hope by the time the An-26s approach retirement, a tender for the new aircraft will have been announced," Balogh says.

Overall, the Hungarian air force is looking to a brighter future, where funds are provided to allow it to fulfil domestic and international commitments. The first decade of the 21st century will bring with it a complete change from Warsaw Pact-style training and command systems - as well as the incorporation of Western technology alongside remaining Russian-built assets.