The government's 24-fighter purchase follows recent order for the fighter from Hungary

The Czech government appears to have brought to a close its eight- year search for a fighter to replace the Mikoyan MiG-21 with the decision to acquire the Saab/BAE Systems Gripen. The CzK50 billion ($1.35 billion) deal will see the first of 24 aircraft delivered in 2004.

The contract is the second success in Eastern Europe for the Saab/BAE team with the Gripen having recently secured an order from Hungary. The aircraft is also set to be the leading contender to win an Austrian fighter competition now under way and is also in a competition in Poland.

The Gripen was the sole remaining bidder in the Czech Republic after its rivals, mainly the Lockheed Martin F-16, pulled out. Washington accused the Czechs of unfair bidding rules and lack of clarity in the selection process. Officials in Prague refuted this, saying the US bidders withdrew when it became obvious they couldn't match the economic support package offered by the eventual winners.

The package offered by the European companies is substantial. Offsets total 150% and financing for 100% of the payment due being provided by the suppliers with deferred repayments spread over at least 15 years. Fourteen projects are already under way involving Czech automotive manufacturers, heavy industry, infrastructure and energy. Included in this is a UK-Icelandic consortium planning to start up a civil aircraft maintenance facility capable of handling widebody types at Ostrava-Mosnov airport. The backbone of the offset projects revolves around 41 programmes already identified by Saab, BAE and US engine supplier General Electric.


BAE Systems is interested in collaboration with aircraft manufacturer Aero Vodochody, in which Boeing is a shareholder. The company builds the troubled L-159 light attack aircraft, which is consuming most of the Czech budget as it procures 72 aircraft - half of which Prague now want to sell. Saab/BAE are thought likely to assist the Czechs in finding an export customer. Local aero-engine builder Walter is likely to be signed up to provide overhaul and repairs.

Initial deliveries of Gripens to one of two squadrons based at Czaslav are set for 2004, with full operational readiness to be reached by late 2005. The Czechs say all MiG-21s will be grounded by the end of 2004, leaving the Gripen as Prague's major contribution to NATO's rapid reaction forces.

Despite enthusiasm from the Czech armed forces that the Gripen ideally fits its operational environment and also offers low operating costs the decision has not been welcomed by all. Opposition parties have criticised the deal, saying the costs will eventually total over CzK100 billion, and cast doubts on whether it should have been undertaken while the L-159 programme is in trouble and other military priorities exist.

Source: Flight International