The Czech ministry of defence is considering a proposed joint air defence system with Slovakia as a back-up should its intended purchase of 24 Saab/BAE Systems Gripen multirole fighters not be approved by the country's recently elected new government.

Saab/BAE has extended its offer to 30 September following rejection by one vote of the deal by parliament shortly before last month's elections. The new government's first meeting is on 23 July. Industry sources believe it unlikely that any Gripen deal will be concluded before late November, around the time of a NATO summit in Prague.

If a deal is not concluded the defence ministry will need to consider leasing aircraft or rely on another air force for air defence, as the air force's MikoyanMiG-21s are to be retired by 1 April, 2005.

The Czech defence ministry says it is considering the "Spolecne Nebe" or common sky proposal, that would mean Slovak air force RSK MiG-29 Fulcrums would provide air defence. This plan relies on Slovakia joining NATO.

Czech pilots could also be trained at Slovakia's Kosice aviation academy, which was the only military flying school in the former Czechoslovakia.

The Spolecne Nebe plan also calls for joint operations with other air forces. Germany, Hungary and Poland are likely participants.

If the Gripen deal is dropped, the Czechs will need another partner to sell some of its Aero Vodochody L-159As. The country ordered 72 single-seat L-159s, but the previous government said that the air force would operate only around half the fleet. Saab/BAE offered to market the surplus aircraft as part of the Gripen deal.

Source: Flight International