Austria is to send pilots to train on Swedish air force Saab Viggens as it prepares to select by the end of next year an advanced fighter to replace its ageing fleet of J35OE Drakens.

The Saab/British Aerospace JAS39 Gripen is seen as a leading contender to meet the Austrian requirement, with a possible interim lease of Viggens being retired by the Swedish air force, although the Austrian defence ministry stresses the training move is unrelated to its fighter evaluation.

Under the terms of its memorandum of understanding (MoU) with Sweden, Austria will send two batches of five pilots to be trained on the Viggen between March 1999 and September 2000.

"The MoU does not signify anything about the type of aircraft that will replace the Draken," says the Austrian defence ministry. "The situation is completely open," it adds. "We think that it might be a wise decision to consolidate the group of pilots we have that can be retrained to fly a different aircraft."

The Viggen training would form an interim step for the Austrian pilots, easing their transition from the Draken to whichever advanced fighter is selected, says the ministry.

The Swedish Defence Materiel Administration says: "The reason for this agreement is to keep the Austrian pilots fit for flying in modern aircraft. It's a government-to-government agreement and has nothing to do with the selling or marketing of the Gripen."

Austria is also being forced to switch focus to the Viggen because the Swedish air force is retiring the small number of two-seat Drakens it operates for training. Austria acquired its Drakens in 1985 and has been sending its pilots to Sweden for training ever since.

Also in the running for the Austrian requirement is the Lockheed Martin F-16, Boeing F/A-18, Dassault Mirage 2000-5 and Mikoyan MiG-29, although the latter type is seen as having a slim chance of being selected.

Unresolved political considerations are expected to weigh heavily on the number of aircraft to be acquired. The country is likely to buy 18-24 fighters if it drops its neutral stance in favour of closer defence ties with other European Union states and NATO, but could require 32-36 aircraft if it remains independent, says the defence ministry. "These two decisions, on the number of aircraft and the type, are more or less linked," it adds.

Source: Flight International