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Czech helicopter purchase: wishful thinking or reality?

Published : 30 November 2012
1 145 words in that article

In the past days several articles were published in the newspapers mentioning the interest of Czech Armed Forces to replace their old helicopters Mi or W-3A Sokol with new Western helicopters in a period of time comprised between 2015 and 2017. The main reason for this purchase is the high cost of maintenance for old helicopters in service in the Czech Armed Forces (Mi-8; Mi-17 and W3A Sokol mainly) which is putting a heavy burden on the Defense budget (see Article of Opinicus international: case of the biter bit). The journalist is quoting some declarations of General Pavel, the Czech Chief of Defense Staff: «it will be more reasonable to buy a new material. Old helicopters have effectively a good price; however from the first maintenance operation you suffer higher costs». And he even puts forward the name of the favorite machine - i-e the Sikorsky UH-60 BlackHawk which cockpits are produced in the Czech company Aero Vodochody.

What can be such an assertion: a journalist fantasy? A wishful thinking of the military people? Or a real acquisition planning process of the Defense Ministry?

In order to determine whether it’s real of fake, it is necessary to examine several criteria that will obviously play a role in the assessment of this project of acquisition.

The number of helicopters envisaged

The Czech Air Force has currently:

  • 38 transport helicopters:
    • 4 Mi-8 (1 modernized in 2010, 1 stocked, 1 that will reach its technical end of life in 2013, 1 that is getting now a general overhaul);
    • 8 Mi-17 (Kbely Air Base: the first one is stocked and the second one will reach its end of life in 2013. Přerov Air Base: the 6 helicopters will reach their end of life by 2015);
    • 16 Mi-171 Š (end of life 2030);
    • 10 W-3A Sokol -4 waiting for a general overhaul, 6 other will need same maintenance treatment in 2014 or 2015);
  • 15 attack helicopters Mi-24/35 that should be sold by 2013. The Czech Defense Ministry sold recently 7 Mi-24 to State Company Lom-Praha for 34.5 million Czech crowns each.

In terms of missions, the Czech Air Force must perform transport of officials, transport of troops or material and participate to the Integrated Rescue Service (IZS).

So it would be logical that, in order to keep a heavy transport capability, the Czech forces should not get rid of the 16 Mi-171. Moreover to manage the other tasks in the same extent as today, keeping also certain flexibility, the need of utility helicopters would be around 30 helicopters.

The potential price

The 2012 unit cost of a BlackHawk in its latest version UH-60M is around 413 million crowns (22.2 million USD according to the US Department of Defense), that is to say around 12.4 billion CZK for 30 helicopters. And this unit cost does not cover the additional equipment, the spare parts, maintenance and training.

As a comparison we can consider the contract signed by Sweden in 2011 through the Foreign Military Sales program: Swedes bought 15 helicopters UH-60 BlackHawk for a comprehensive price of 546 million USD (more than 10 billion CZK) (see article http://www.janes.com/products/janes/defence-security-report.aspx?id=1065929848). Considering this price, the Czech Republic would need more than 20 billion crowns to buy 30 helicopters… amount of money that is very far from the 5 billion CZK mentioned in the media.

In order to stick to this latter amount of money, the Czechs would be able to buy either 7-8 helicopters at the Swedish price or 12 helicopters without additional equipment, training and maintenance as it was the case for the US Army in 2012. Those figures are far from being sufficient to cope with all the tasks of the Czech Forces… unless the Sikorsky Company – or the United States – consent enormous price reductions. That is difficult to believe but is not impossible. After all the Americans are candidates in the selection process to build a new nuclear plant in Temelin. No doubt that, in order to win this contract, some good concessions on military sales would be easily negotiated.

The Czech Defense budget and the other needs in terms of material

The Czech Republic has been heavily struck by the world economic crisis and has regularly downsized its Defense budget: 55.9 billion crowns in 2009; 48.8 billion CZK in 2010; 43.8 billion CZK in 2011; 43.5 billion CZK in 2012 and 42 billion crowns are planned for 2013 (figures from Czech Defense ministry).

Investment expenditures in 2013-2014 are expected to be around 6 billion crowns per year. Even if the economic situation in the 2015-2017 period of time – which is the one envisaged for the helicopter purchase – will improve greatly, it is difficult to envisage a bigger investment capability than 8 billion crowns per year.

And during the same period of time, the country will have to finance some other acquisitions programs such as:

  • Prolongation of the leasing fee of the supersonic jets (or acquisition fees according to the solution that will be decided in a near future by the Czech government);
  • Acquisition of 10 Mobile Air Defense radars;
  • Purchase of 30 armored vehicles in command car version;
  • Probable replacement of the DANA howitzers;
  • Reinforcement of the Missile Air Defense capability after the progressive withdrawal of SA-6 systems;
  • Investments in the “clever” part of the “Future Soldier” program;
  • Replacement of the old tracked armored combat vehicles BMP-1 (decision of replacement or withdrawal to be taken in 2013);
  • Possible acquisition of one or two small aircraft for transport of political authorities…

«After having subtracted the mandatory expenditures, there are around 3 billion crowns per year that you can invest. The Air Force is an expensive hobby» underlines General Mičánek, head of “Force planning” division in the Czech General Staff.

With such a finance capability, and provided that the Defense Ministry will use those funds entirely for the helicopters acquisition, they will need around 6 years to pay the bill. Such an expensive acquisition will have to be very high on the priority list of the Czech Republic to have a chance to become real.

The modernization of the current Czech helicopters would be less expensive. Would that mean that this acquisition has no chance to become real? It’s not that sure! A lot of Czech passed armament acquisitions overrode the limits of the common logics.

And who knows, if the economic situation will improve, if the Czech Defense Ministry will find some more money (less overseas operations, suppression of an air base, sales of superfluous material (36 L-159 stocked for example), significant augmentation of the Czech armament exports), if the order will be less important or if the commercial conditions will be particularly interesting, then nothing is preventing the Czech pilots to have a new type of helicopter – UH-60 or any other one that would fulfill the specifications of the call for tenders that is said being prepared.