The Czech air force has an ambitious re-equipment programme in mind

Andrew Doyle/PRAGUE

Of NATO's new East European members, the Czech Republic has the most advanced re-equipment programme. It will take delivery later this year of the first five of 72 indigenously developed Aero Vodochody L-159 light attack and reconnaissance aircraft. But, like Poland and Hungary, it has a requirement for advanced Western fighters, although in relatively small numbers.

At the air force's helm is Lt Gen Ladislav Klima, who joined the former Czechoslovakian 28th Fighter Bomber Regiment as an officer in 1974 after graduating from the military academy at Brno. He was appointed commander of the regiment in 1980, and rose through the ranks major general in 1993.

In July 1997, he took over as commander of the Czech air force. He is still an active pilot, flying Sukhoi Su-22s, having logged more than 2,000 flying hours.

The Czech air force faces many of the same problems as its East European peers in its need to upgrade the command, control and communications infrastructure to enable full interoperability with NATO forces.

"We started our preparations two years ago," says Klima, "and those two years were a hard time for us." The first priority was to familiarise air force personnel with the English language and with NATO procedures in general. Next came the requirement to upgrade equipment to NATO standards.

"It was hard, because we had only Russian-produced equipment," says Klima. This is being replaced with Westernised air traffic control systems, operated in accordance with International Civil Aviation Organisation rules and procedures. New control towers have been constructed at military airfields.

The second stage of preparations, says Klima, saw the introduction of changes to the air force command structure, bringing it into line with those of established NATO members. This included the setting up of a single command centre, plus upgrades for the country's air bases. Initially, a single squadron is being allocated to NATO rapid-reaction duties.

"Now we must prepare in more detail for the upgrade of our aircraft and air defence systems," says Klima. "The government must agree with our concept of building our army and air force. This includes a first stage to 2004 and our vision to 2009. After that, we will continue the development of our air force."

Budget pledge

Klima says that funding for the service this year is adequate, but "the problem is that the budgets for the last two years were not enough for our needs". The government has pledged to increase the defence budget by 0.2% of the country's gross domestic product each year.

The Czech Government is expected to select a Western fighter for the air force by year-end, and a formal request for information is expected imminently. The competition will be between Boeing, with its F/A-18, British Aerospace and Saab, offering the Gripen, Dassault Aviation, with its Mirage 2000 and Lockheed Martin, with the F-16. The Czech Republic is likely to require 24-36 aircraft.

Klima says he broadly agrees with the commanders of the Polish and Hungarian air forces over the potential benefits of procuring a common aircraft type, to reduce spares, training and support costs. He points out, however, that there could be problems with such a strategy because the Czech Republic needs its aircraft by 2004, while Poland could wait until 2006 by leasing used fighters in the interim.

"I have spoken to my colleagues from Poland and Hungary, but there are different views," says Klima. "However, I believe we will discuss this more next time we meet. We are evaluating the four aircraft, but we are waiting for the decision of our government on the offset and financial programme."

The air force plans to operate its 23 Sukhoi Su-22s until 2008, while its 60 Mikoyan MiG-21s and 24 Sukhoi Su-25s will be kept until 2004 and 2006, respectively. Its 22 Mikoyan MiG-23s were phased out last year. Cadet pilots will continue to train on Aero L-39s.

The air force also has 36 Mil Mi-24 attack helicopters. Klima would like these upgraded with night vision and expanded weapon-system capabilities. "Our proposals for this are on the table, but we are waiting for the money," says Klima. "We plan for these modifications to start in 2002 or 2003."

All of the front-line aircraft have been modified with Western identification friend or foe transponders, global positioning system and communications equipment to allow them to participate in NATO operations, says Klima.

Czech pilots started learning English two years ago and now have a basic grasp of the language. Some are fluent; others are still capable only of "social" conversation. But Klima adds: "Within two years, all pilots will be able to communicate fully in English."

The Czech air force, like its Polish counterpart, has received help from fellow NATO countries, particularly in training. "We've had some good co-operation with Germany, and both Germany and the UK offered us some training for our pilots," says Klima. "The Dutch also offered us training for our missile systems."

L-159 licensed production


Earlier this year, the Czech Government offered Poland licensed production of the L-159 (above), if the latter chooses the aircraft for its advanced lead-in trainer requirement, as part of a wider plan to step up co-operation between the two countries. This could also include bilateral defence co-operation - a principle welcomed by Klima.

Meanwhile, preparations to introduce the L-159 to the Czech air force are well under way, ahead of first deliveries, scheduled for December. "Now we have started the preparation of our pilots and technical personnel at the theoretical level," says Klima. "During the second half of the year we propose to send these people to Aero Vodochody [for further training]."

The Czech air force also has a requirement for medium transport aircraft, although these are not likely to be introduced until 2004-5, and will be used to augment its Antonov An-24s and An-26s.

"We are looking for a new type of [medium transport] aircraft, although it is not an important question for us," says Klima. "We need to buy new aircraft so that we can increase the number of transport aircraft. We know that we need to increase our transport capabilities."

It is evaluating the same types as is the Polish air force - the Alenia G222, CASA CN-235 and the Lockheed Martin C-130. Klima says of the C-130, however: "My personal opinion is that we don't need this type of aircraft."

Source: Flight International