Czechs to stick with Gripen fighters – for now

PM tasks defense minister with agreeing a ‘bridging solution’  to enable the Czechs to keep using Swedish JAS-39 Gripens after 2015

The Gripen Jas 39 in flight | na serveru Lidovky.cz | aktuální zprávy The Gripen Jas 39 in flight | foto: © archiveČeská pozice
The Gripen Jas 39 in flight

The Czech Republic wants to continue to patrol its skies with the supersonic JAS-39 Gripen jet fighters after the current lease expires in 2015, but the government will not make a final decision about the long-term outfitting of its air force until the economy improves, Prime Minister Petr Nečas (Civic Democrats, ODS) confirmed following Wednesday’s regular Cabinet meeting.

“In the current economic situation, also with regard to public budgets, the government does not consider it correct to declare a tender that should definitively solve the problems of airspace protection,” Nečas told reporters.

Nečas has tasked Defense Minister Alexandr Vondra (ODS) with negotiating a “bridging solution” with the Swedish government to enable the Czechs to keep using the 14 jet fighters, made by the BAE Systems-SAAB consortium, the state news agency ČTK reported. Vondra is due to report back to the government about the talks by mid-2012, the Cabinet said in a resolution; the premier said he expected the “bridge” period to be at most five years.

The news server E15.cz reported earlier that the Defense Ministry would like to negotiate an extension of the Gripen lease, an option recommended in a classified report that the Cabinet was to discuss on Wednesday, and quoted an unnamed source close to the Government Office as saying the Czechs would suggest continuing the current terms.

Hungary, a fellow EU and NATO member state that has a far more troubled economy, earlier this week announced it had negotiated an extension of its JAS-39 Gripen agreement with the Swedish Defence and Security Export Agency (FXM). The country had entered into in a lease-purchase agreement for 14 planes in 2001, with a further modification in 2003 that included 14 Gripen C/D (12 single-seater and 2 two-seater aircraft). The new agreement is extended until 2026.

The Gripen is operated by air forces in Sweden, Hungary, the Czech Republic, South Africa and Thailand. Switzerland announced in November 2011 that it intends to purchase 22 Gripen aircraft.

‘Untested’ and with limited range

In the past, Nečas has shown little enthusiasm for extending the Gripen lease, given that investigations into alleged massive corruption relating to an original deal to buy 24 JAS-39 fighters over several years have yet to be concluded. That deal was dumped by the Czech parliament in 2003 in favor of the leasing option (at a cost of Kč 20 billion, one-third what it would have cost to buy the planes).

The Czech premier has also expressed reservations about the technical aspects of the Swedish fighter jets. “Gripens have not yet been tested in combat, do no communicate with the technical equipment of NATO states and have half of the range of the F-16 because they cannot refuel in-flight,” he said early last year.

US bids to protect Czech airspace could involve F-16s from Lockheed Martin or F-18s from Boeing. The European consortium that makes the Eurofighter (EADS, Italy’s Alenia Aeronautica, and BAE Systems) has reportedly tried to drum up Czech interest in taking second-hand Typhoons— a twin-engine aircraft comparable to older F-16s — that are now in use by Italy.

Meanwhile, the Americans are set to discard F-16s as they move to the F-35 models and will be looking to unload thousands of the older planes to their allies in NATO and elsewhere.