An opportunity for Central European air forces

Niektoré štáty aj v strednej Európe zvažujú prezbrojenie svojich vzdušných síl novými nadzvukovými stíhačkami. Okrem iných nevyhnutností, treba zabezpečiť aj adekvátnu úroveň výcviku. Napriek stále lepším simulačným technológiám, podzvukové letectvo ostáva ako dôležitý element výcviku. Náš analytik Fred Hardman Lea ukazuje na možnosti, ktoré budú mať vlády našich krajín pri úvahách o ďalšom prezbrojení vzdušných síl podzvukovými lietadlami.
(Článok je v angličtine)

Popular military analysis tends to focus on who has the latest and most sophisticated hardwarewithout paying closer attention to programs needed to utilize this hardware effectively. Pilot training is a prime example. As combat jets become increasingly more sophisticated, pilots need more and better training to utilize them. Yet, training projects have increasingly suffered funding cuts to allocate more resources to the acquisition of front-line combat aircraft. Of course, reducing the training budgets is hugely counter-productive as it reduces the capability of new and current pilots and while the negative impacts incurred by funding cuts have been mitigated by increasingly effective flight simulators, there is a need for pilots to amass real flight hours to effectively use advanced supersonic jets

In Central Europe, Slovakia and Poland are purchasing new frontline combat jets, while Czechia, Austria, and Hungary are looking to update or change theirs. These will be some of the most expensive programs ever undertaken by these air forces. Expensive projects like these cannot be undertaken without an opportunity cost. Typically, this could manifest as cutbacks to training programs or the jets used for them, subsequently reducing pilots’ capabilities and resulting in maintenance costs for frontline supersonic aircraft that are forced into the training role. The positive impact of these expensive air force overhauls would be reduced. The best way to avoid this and ensure that new purchases reach their full potential is through a Central European jettraining built around a suitable jet trainer that shares costs and benefits among participants. This will involve sharing airframes, facility locations, maintenance, purchasing, flight hours, and jobs, while integrating relevant existing public and private organizations into the training program.

Jet training programs date back to the closing days of the Second World War. They became more important as the capability and complexity of frontline combat aircraft increased (e.g., with the introduction of supersonic aircraft in the 1950s). Training programs reduce risk to pilots and airframes by using specially configured jets (advanced trainers), which have much lower operational and airframe costs than frontline supersonic aircraft. A modern jet training program,shared among Central European states, should consider advanced trainers with several criteria:• The hourly cost of operations should be low;

  • Their initial cost must be much lower than combat supersonic aircraft;
  • Fuel consumption must be much lower than combat supersonic aircraft;
  • Distance, duration, range should mimic combat supersonic aircraft;
  • Equipment, avionics, and systems should be as close as possible or the same as combat supersonic aircraft;
  • Flight characteristics and handling should be as close as possible to supersonic combat aircraft;
  • There should be the option to upgrade the platform as the primary supersonic combat jet is updated.

Therefore, an acceptable trainer for a common Central European jet training program needs to be suitable for transitioning to Saab’s Gripen (for Hungary and Czechia, although these states could adopt new platforms) and Lockheed Martin’s F-16 (for Slovakia, Poland, and other potential regional partners like Bulgaria and Romania). To attract Poland and ensure the program’s longevity, the training program and aircraft chosen should be suitable for transitioning to the F-35. Currently, Poland is the only regional state that seeks to operate this aircraft, but it is possible that other states will transition to the F-35 in the future. Additionally, any advanced trainer chosen must be cheaper to operate than the Gripen ($4,700 per hour), F-16 ($7,000 per hour), or F-35 ($31,000 per hour). There are several aircraft producers that could meet these demands. Aero has a long history of aircraft production and specializing in advanced trainers. Its L-39 has remained a popular trainer, with a new model entering the market (L-39NG). As a native company to Central Europe, it is likely that they would be included in any discussion related to a shared training program. An additional benefit to incorporating Aero into a regional training program is the very low operational cost of their L-39NG ($2,500 per hour). An interesting contender is Korean Air Industries (KAI) with its supersonic T-50 (designed in partnership with Lockheed Martin). Itsoperational costs are also low at an estimated $3,100 per hour. A recent memorandum of understanding between KAI and the Slovak state-owned defense company Letecké opravovneTrenčín, a.s. indicates KAI’s regional interest. Other potential companies include BAE with their Advanced Hawk (a subsonic design), Saab and Boeing with their newly developed T-7 Red Hawk (a supersonic design), and Leonardo with their M-346 (a transonic design).

Any proposed Central European jet training initiative must incorporate existing state and non-state organizations already involved in training and/or aircraft maintenance. This safeguards jobs, preserves experience, and protects national interests. Getting buy-in from these organizations (such as Czech state-owned enterprise LOM Prague) should not be hard as most have seen their size reduced due to budgetary restrictions and trainer fleet reductions (e.g., the Czech air force selling the majority of its L-159 training fleet to Draken International, interestingly making Draken International the largest operator of this model ). Regional players are more likely to join in if training assets are fairly distributed and relevant domestic industries along with a suitable, cost-effective airframe are involved. A regional jet training program could also be linked with projects sponsored by important strategic organizations. NATO’s Flight Training Europe (NFTE) initiative, for example, seeks to create a network of pilot training institutions across Europe. The first training centres for this have opened this month in Italy, but if NATO wishes to see further cooperation from its Central European members then integrating a regional jet training program into the NFTE is an excellent path to achieving this (the only Central European NFTE members so far are Czechia and Hungary)Integrating regional training programs helps strengthen the alliance through common training practices and provide greater opportunity for regional air force exercises.