Keen to show its neutrality, Austria has long kept its air force to a minimum. This strategy could soon change

René van Woezik/VIENNA

Austria spends less than most European countries on defence, as a proportion of its GDP that is, and stretches the lives of its aircraft to their operational limits. But one of the tasks facing a new Austrian Government - yet to be formed as no party won a majority in recent elections - will be to choose and buy new fighters, transports and helicopters. The Austria National Defence Council will recommend new fighters by early next year.

Regardless of the government's eventual make-up, politicians will have to balance the needs of the country's air force with those of the electorate, which gives the air force little support. Austrian Staff Officer Oberst Wolf-Dietrich Tesar explains: "The Austrians think the air force is too small to make a difference in a crisis situation and that it costs too much."

According to the air force, Austria must also decide whether to join a European defence structure or continue to stand alone. If it chooses the latter, a larger force is necessary.

Austria's unwillingness to commit to a full-blown force is reflected in the 20 years of political discussion it took to replace its Saab J29 fighters, which were withdrawn from service in 1972. The air force says: "Whatever the combination of political parties in the government will be, there will be no evident changes for the air force-The air force policy differences between the three parties are minor, as all parties are aware that a small country as Austria can only operate a limited force."

Tesar says, however, that the air force's fighter force of 23 Saab J35OE Drakens is "an absolute minimum", and suggests it needs at least 13 more. The Draken was chosen over ex-Saudi Arabian air force English Electric Lightnings, which had better capabilities, more flight hours left and cost half the Draken's price. The politicians decided that Austrian neutrality was better expressed by the Draken, built in similarly neutral Sweden.

The neutrality factor could play a role again in Austria's choice of a new fighter. It has evaluated the Lockheed Martin F-16C/D, the Boeing F/A-18C/D Hornet, the MAPO MiG-29, the Dassault Mirage 2000-5 and the Saab/British Aerospace Gripen.

Tesar says the air force believes it is a choice between two fighter types. "Of course, the MiG-29 is the cheapest new-generation fighter, especially due to the Russian debt to Austria. But the Fulcrum is not considered suitable because of the different systems and possible spare part delays if we have problems with our eastern neighbours. The F/A-18 Hornet and Mirage 2000 may turn out to be too expensive, which leaves the F-16 and the Gripen as the best aircraft to choose from. While the F-16 has already proven itself, the Gripen can suffer from 'childhood diseases'," he says.

The selection process, however, could be affected by politics and not determined only by the Austrians' choice of fighter. The ultimate composition of Austria's new government, in particular the role of the far-right Freedom Party, could influence the willingness of some countries, such as the USA and Sweden, to sell their aircraft to Austria.

Two Draken squadrons make up Austria's air defence-dedicated Surveillance Wing - one is based at Graz-Thalerhof, the other at Zeltweg. They are armed with former Swedish air force Raytheon AIM-9P3 Sidewinders, as well as two internal 30mm cannon. The Draken can also be equipped with an Austrian-designed reconnaissance pod fitted with Contax cameras.

The Draken was due to be retired last year, but will limp on until 2003-5, by which time at least one squadron of new fighters should be operational. In June, five ex-Swedish air force J35Fs were acquired to be used for spare parts.

Austria is also short of Draken pilots. "This year we have five Austrian pilots flying the Swedish air force Saab JA37 Viggen at Lulea [in Sweden], with another five following next year," says Tesar. "This does not imply we are going for the Gripen, but we need to offer our pilots the chance to fly a modern jet in preparation for the new fighter, or lose them to civil aviation."

The Saab 105OE, which entered service in 1970, is the only other jet aircraft in Austria's arsenal. The 27 remaining aircraft are used only for training at Linz-Horsching and liaison at Zeltweg. Originally they also had interception, ground attack and reconnaissance roles. Plans call for the aircraft's retirement by 2010.

The Austrian air force has 74 helicopters of five different types, some of which may be replaced soon. Oberst Oskar Nitsch, Commander of 3 Wing at Linz-Horsching, says: "This may be the last year of Austrian [Agusta-Bell] AB204 operations as we simply have no more spare parts left. This year we have only six operational AB204s and, if we are lucky, perhaps we can prolong operations until early next year at the latest. But it has been a good and reliable helicopter for 36 years."

Some 24 Agusta-Bell AB212s have operated from Tulln-Langenlebarn and Linz-Horsching since 1980 and plans call for them to stay in the fleet until 2010 for troop transport, search and rescue (SAR) and fire-fighting.

Helicopter training is conducted with 11 Agusta Bell AB206A JetRangers at Tulln-Langenlebarn. The type has been the primary trainer since 1969 and is due for replacement around 2002-3. Major Stefan Zott, Commander of the AB206 squadron, says that not replacing the AB206s with new trainers now means "going abroad to continue our training programme - although we have no problem doing that".

Armed Bell

The similar Bell OH-58B is the only armed helicopter in the fleet and has been in use since 1976. Armed with an M-134 7.62mm gun, the Kiowas fly observation missions from Tulln-Langenlebarn and will stay in service until 2010. For border surveillance as part of Austria's Schengen Treaty obligations, two of the 11 OH-58Bs are fitted with forward-looking infrared and Nite Sun searchlight sensors.

From Eigen im Ennstal and detachments at Klagenfurt and Schwaz, 23 Aerospatiale Alouette IIIs operate in a utility role and Alpine SAR. Flown by Austria since 1967, the Alouette III will serve until 2010-12 despite its advanced age. A specialised two-ship Schengen Treaty border surveillance detachment is based at Punitz near the Hungarian border.

Last February's Alpine avalanches, which killed 50 people, underlined the dangers in the Austrian mountains and the urgent need for more helicopters. The disaster saw an international airlift operation involving helicopters from Austria, France, Germany, Switzerland and the USA, but the home team was able to launch only 11 AB212s, six Alouette IIIs and two AB204s.

The tragedy accelerated government discussions about acquiring more aircraft and, within a few months, it had reserved a budget for nine new multirole helicopters. The Eurocopter AS532UC Cougar, EH Industries EH101, NH Industries NH90 and Sikorsky S-70 Black Hawk will be tested in the country, and one is expected to be chosen early next year.

Two Shorts SC-7 Skyvan transports, based at Tulln-Langenlebarn, have been in service since 1969. They cannot carry large loads and for exercises outside Austria, the air force leases civil aircraft. Up to four transports with a 7t payload are needed by 2010 at the latest. Initial interest has been shown in the British Aerospace 146, Airtech CN235 and Aeritalia G222. According to Tesar, the Lockheed Martin C-130 and Transall C-160 are also under consideration, and ultimately, two types may be chosen.

The air force has used 12 Pilatus PC-6 Turbo Porters in a range of roles since 1976 and intends to keep them in service until 2010. Basic, advanced and weapons training is performed with 16 Pilatus PC-7 turboprops. They have a secondary ground support role fitted with 12.7mm gun and rocket pods.

As Austria enters the 21st century, not only equipment issues but also force structure will determine the country's national military posture. As the country considers whether to continue its solo stance, all three political parties vying to lead the country contend that it should shift from a compulsory force to a regular army within the next five to six years. "If this is done," the air force says, "it will see a large reduction in the size of all branches - including the air force."

Source: Flight International