A series of fatal accidents has increased pressure on the Czech air force to modernise, but can it afford to?
On 10 October, two veteran Czech pilots died when a pair of 25-year-old Mikoyan MiG-21 Fishbeds crashed in poor weather on their way back to the Czech 4th Tactical Air Force base at Caslav after a routine NATO training exercise. For some it was yet another accident waiting to happen.
The crash was the country's third involving ageing military aircraft within four months. In June, a pilot was killed when his Soviet-built Sukhoi Su-22M4 Fitter crashed in South Moravia during a NATO exercise, while another pilot died in August when a 31-year-old Czechoslovak-built L-39 went down in a cornfield near Chrudim in east Bohemia.
Although the Czech air force stressed its confidence in its older aircraft in the wake of the double MiG-21 crash, flight safety became a priority for Czech air force commander Lt Gen Ladislav Klima. "This accident was very tough for us. We have held two conferences with pilots, airbase commanders and those responsible for air traffic control to discuss flight safety in order to prevent further accidents, as far as possible," said Klima.
The causes of the crashes had not been established by mid-December, but Klima said that all the pilots involved were "very experienced". His comments suggested that the air force wants to deflect the blame away from the pilots.
Whatever the reasons behind the accidents, they brought to the boil a simmering internal political argument over the state of the Czech armed forces: how should the Czech Government go about modernising its air force? And how should it pay for it?
As in the case of other former Warsaw Pact states in Central Europe, such as Poland and Hungary, the Czech Republic uses ageing Soviet-built aircraft as the mainstay of its air defences. To make matters worse, the country's war chest is creaking under the strain of ensuring its airspace is secure, while maintaining its obligations to NATO, which it joined in March 1999.
But the Czech Republic's case is particularly awkward in that it has the financial repercussions of two major aircraft projects to consider. Firstly there is the soaring cost of purchasing 72 L-159 light attack aircraft from Czech company Aero Vodochody. What started in 1997 as a CKr25-30 billion ($636-764 million) investment to help bolster an ailing Czech aircraft industry could end up costing up to CKr50 billion following a series of delays in delivery and the soaring value of the dollar against the Czech Koruna.
The second major project is a tender for between 24 and 36 supersonic fighter aircraft which could cost the country CKr100 billion.
This second issue has become a political battleground. In a speech to the US Chamber of Commerce in Prague on 6 December, US Ambassador to the Czech Republic, John Shattuck, warned that the Czechs should think long and hard before proceeding with the tender: "Neither the US Government nor NATO is pushing the Czech Republic to buy new fighter planes because we are deeply concerned that they will break the military budget and make it impossible to focus on restructuring the Czech military."
The Czech Republic - which spends around 2.2% of its GDP on defence - believes it has little choice but to modernise its air force, as its armed forces chief of staff, Lt Gen Jiri Sedivy, explains: "A major share of our air force is former Soviet Union-made aircraft that are very expensive to operate. Therefore, we are taking every opportunity to reduce the variety of aircraft from the former Soviet Union and to pare our dependence on today's Russian market which is unable to fulfil all our needs, particularly in the area of spare parts."
Nobody in political circles is using the word "crisis" at the moment but there are clearly concerns at a number of aspects of the L-159 deal. The most obvious example is the fact that Czech air force pilots will not receive simulators until the middle of 2002, 18 months after the delivery of the first batch of aircraft. Until then, they will have to familiarise themselves with the L-159 instrument panel via a stationary cockpit.
The air force confirms the delay but says it cannot comment on potential dangers faced by pilots unable to practice on a simulator. An air force source, however, describe the situation as "a big scrape...It was a mistake in the planning process. I suppose there was a wrong attitude to complex questions about the aircraft," he says. Asked what it was doing to correct the problem, the air force would only say "the situation [will be] resolved by special pilots' training."
Blame for the lack of simulators has been laid at the defence ministry's door by state-run Czech Television (CT). In December CT argued that the ministry had failed to press the simulator producers sufficiently hard to ensure delivery at the same time as the aircraft, the first of which were delivered at the end of last year. It is understood that the first training flights at the Caslav air force base will start next month.
During 2000 the military phased out its 17 Mikoyan MiG-23 Floggers and grounded its tank-busting Sukhoi Su-25 Frogfoots at the end of the year. This year, it will either retire or ground its 31 Su-22s.
Defence minister Vladimir Vetchy accepts that changes are necessary, especially in the wake of the double MiG-21 loss in October. "Of course a whole range of problems appeared then," he says. "The defence budget in the past was at a lower level and that's why we have to settle many problems which could have been settled earlier."
Antonin Rasek, a former director of the Czech Institute for Strategic Studies and ex-deputy defence minister, believes a major overhaul of military and political thinking is long overdue: "Between 1989's Velvet Revolution and 1996, there were only four military aircraft crashes. In the last four years there have been nine," he says. "In my opinion, it has been caused by a combination of obsolete equipment, the loss of many experienced maintenance technicians to civilian airlines and a lack of professionalism by some Czech pilots."
Recognising that it must modernise its forces, the Czech Government has undertaken a major strategic review after years of what was, in effect, directionless military development: "Not only the air force but the whole of the armed forces lacked clear political direction, particularly during the period between the breakdown of the Warsaw Pact and the time when we decided to take every measure to join the NATO alliance," says Sedivy. "In this period the Czech Republic was not anchored firmly to any outside structure. We did not have any specific political guidance for our forces and therefore could not give any clear guidance to the air force."
Although Sedivy stops short of criticising his political masters, he is clearly frustrated by the restrictions placed on pilot training through defence budget limitations which will see normal operational flying hours reduced from 140 hours in 2000 to less than 100h this year. Although pilots attached to NATO-related operations will enjoy more flying hours, even they may face a reduction if extra money cannot be found. "After a decrease of flying hours and a reduction of pilot training that was the result mainly of economic difficulties, we have to go back to the level of training that is acceptable for NATO," Sedivy says.
The phrase "economic difficulties" is something of an understatement. The L-159 project will swallow about 70% of capital spending on defence next year, and a similar proportion the year after. This year, it will cost the Czech defence ministry around CKr9 billion out of a budget of around CKr45 billion which includes operational and other expenditures.
It is money the ministry can ill afford, particularly as last week it launched the tender for the supersonic fighters. Five foreign groups are candidates for the tender, including UK-Swedish consortium Saab/BAE Systems, US companies Boeing and Lockheed Martin, France's Dassault Aviation and EADS.
Not everyone is happy with the tender's timing. The chairman of the country's defence and security committee, Petr Necas, wants the L-159 project well under way before the country digs deep into its pockets for new supersonic fighters: "The purchase of supersonic aircraft will be a very expensive step which will be a long-term obligation on successive Czech governments," says Necas, who is also shadow defence spokesman for the conservative Civic Democratic Party. "I can't imagine the situation when we could try to implement two new aircraft at the same time. First, we must be focused towards the L-159 and develop all operational, logistical and tactical procedures because it is a totally new aircraft. For that you need at least limited operational capability for one, two or three squadrons."
Defence minister Vetchy says that budgetary pressures could be alleviated by staging payments over a long period: "If we go ahead with the tender, the presumed deployment of these aircraft would be 2004 and payments would be postponed for five years and continue for the next 15 to 20 years." Senior air force staff, however, want a clear statement on the supersonic aircraft from politicians sooner rather than later. "We need a decision soon because we have to look ahead for five years in terms of buying spare parts for our existing aircraft," says Klima. "We don't want to invest more money in our air force than is necessary." Klima and others are unlikely to get all the answers they seek for some time, given the complexity of the tender process for the aircraft.
Its most controversial aspect is the Czech government's stated requirement that any successful bidder must offer an industrial offset programme worth 150% of the cost of the aircraft. Some bidders have balked at the conditions but stated they are still interested.
For Necas, the offset programme has limited appeal. "Offset has very small effects on public debt," he says. "Over a long period of time, I can't imagine the Czech air force without supersonic fighters but I am not sure whether this is the right time for this step. It will only mean an increase in state debt."
Necas' concerns drew support from US Ambassador Shattuck, who told the US Chamber of Commerce in December: "To adopt such an approach is simply mixing apples and pears. Cost and military requirements should be the deciding factors in determining whether to purchase fighter aircraft. We are urging the Czech Government to take a long, hard look at these two factors before making any decision. As I am sure you agree, the market is the best determinant of foreign investment flows. Offsets alone will not solve this country's industrial restructuring problems."
Vetchy has indicated that the government will not necessarily accept any of the offers due by 31 May, but he sees an opportunity for the Czech state to benefit from the situation: "This bidding could be a good opportunity for the Czech economy to recover. That's why we require that the offsets must be at the level of 150%, and 60% of that must be direct investment," he says.
Vetchy also stressed his support for the L-159 project, whose costs have spiralled upwards since 1997. "We believe the L-159 will be an excellent aircraft and we also believe that it will not only be used in the forces of the Czech Republic but in other countries as well."
The outcome of the supersonic tender should be known by autumn, but in the meantime the government is likely to face intense pressure from foreign aviation companies desperate to score a deal in an increasingly tight worldwide market, according to Necas.
"Our cabinet has already been under pressure from defence companies around the world because there is a limited market today where it is possible to sell and actually get your money. I think it will be necessary to be careful because not everything which is good for a major defence company is good for the Czech Republic or its armed forces."
Vetchy denies any pressure but accepts Necas's point. "The government is quite definitely not under pressure from foreign companies and it will decide what is in the best interests of the Czech State."
Source: Flight International