Czech and Slovak air reforms: a chance for alignment

We are pleased to present our new collaborator: Frederick Hardman Lea.
Fred is studying his next school – Crisis and Security Management at the Justice Institute of British Columbia. His long-term passions, among other things, are technology, trends in defence and security. His analytical work gives us the necessary context and insight in assessing the situation and events, not only in Central Europe.
Fred is still writing in English (he promised to learn Slovak :). We will publish some of his work on the ICE website. Today we publish his view on the procurement process (and opportunities for cooperation) of the most financially demanding segment of the armed forces – supersonic airforces – in the Czech Republic and Slovakia.
Fred, welcome and good luck!

Slovakia’s purchase of the F-16V and the coming expiration of the Czech Gripen lease present anopportunity to align the Czech and Slovak air forces around a common combat jet platform, the F16.

Aligning air forces would improve interoperability and coordination; it could also lead to programs that would reduce costs for both air forces (especially in training). This would increase the effectiveness of the “Joint Sky” agreement through which each state has agreed to protect the other’s airspace. For years the Slovak government appeared on the verge of adopting the Gripen, aligning themselves with regional partners, namely Czechia and Hungary. However, in 2018 Slovakia agreed to purchase the F-16 from the US company Lockheed Martin. Now, if Czechia and Slovakia aim to align their air forces, Czechia will have to also acquire the F-16.

Currently, the Czechs lease twelve (plus two training models) 4th generation Gripen jets from the Swedish air force. These are capable multi-role aircraft developed by Saab. Given the experience, infrastructure, and logistics developed from operating the Gripen, it may be difficult to persuade the Czechs of the benefits of operating the F-16, which is really no better in capability than the Gripen. 

There are at least four options available to the Czechs to replace their Gripen lease:

1) Simply stay with the Gripen in an updated, leased, or purchased form;
2) Purchase Lockheed Martin’s F-16 4th generation mutli-role platform;
3) Purchase a European platform like the French Rafael or the multinational Eurofighter (a group project from the UK, Germany, and Italy). Both are 4th generation multi role platforms;
4) Purchase Lockheed Martin’s 5th generation multi-role platform, the F-35.

Purchase a European platform like the French Rafael or the multinational Eurofighter (a group project from the UK, Germany, and Italy). Both are 4th generation multi role platforms;

Purchase Lockheed Martin’s 5th generation multi-role platform, the F-35.

The benefits of option 1 are, as previously stated, that the Czechs can build upon their existing experience and infrastructure to operate the Gripen. Option 2 would see the Czechs step in line with regional partners, including Slovakia, Poland, Bulgaria, and Romania who have or are in the process of acquiring F-16s, which creates an opportunity for partnerships across the region. Option 3 would see the Czechs operate a European platform, that would provide options for cooperation with regional and powerful NATO allies like France (if the Rafael is chosen), or Germany, Italy, Austria, and the UK (if the Eurofighter Typhoon is chosen).  However, the cost of operating these platforms twice exceeds the cost of operating the F-16 and is four times the cost of the Gripen (approximately $17,000 per hour for the Eurofighter and Rafael, versus $7,000 for the F-16 and $4,700 for the Gripen), making them too expensive for central European air forces. 

Option 4 is the most alluring from a purely technical perspective. If Czechia operated the F35, it would become the second state in Central Europe (after Poland) to do so. The advanced stealth and maneuverability features of the F-35 would give the Czechs one of the more regionally powerful air forces. With the F35 becoming an unofficial NATO standard the fourth option would also give Czechia the ability to operate with strategic partners (such as the USA, UK, Italy, Poland, Denmark, and others) and make it easier to base allied air assets locally if necessary. However, its operating costs are even higher than the European options, at approximately $33,000 per hour. Such cost is hard, if not impossible, for the Czech Air Force to justify. Even the jobs brought in by admittance to the Joint Strike Fighter program (as each program partner is entitled to some parts production) would not be enough to justify this operating cost.

The best options are therefore for the Czech Air Force to operate either the Gripen or F-16. These remain viable combat platforms with the benefits of being reliable and having low operating costs. The Gripen’s manufacturer (Saab) is very flexible in making deals, allowing for leasing and domestic production in some deals (such as in Brazil). Lockheed Martin, the manufacturer of the F-16, too makes increasingly better deals. In addition, like the F-35, the F-16 is an unofficial NATO standard but without the cost or inevitable troubleshooting that come from operating the F-35 at this time.

If the F-16 and the Gripen are the only realistic options to replace the Czech Gripen lease, shouldn’t the Czechs opt for the F-16 on the basis that it can be aligned with its key regional partners? The operating costs can be brought down to Gripen levels through cooperation as the fuel consumption and parts usage can be offset by reduced training costs, better deals for spare parts, and an increase in combat effectiveness. While the operating costs may remain higher than the Gripen, selection of a new combat jet must not simply be a matter of cost, but the result of a cost-benefit analysis that recognizes the value of the regional alignment of air forces.