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Czech Gripen: no agreement yet

Published : 24 September 2012
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On 21st September, Mr. Alexandr Vondra, Czech Defense minister, met his Swedish counterpart, Ms. Karin Enström prior to their common venue to the NATO Days 2012, the most important air show of central Europe (205 000 spectators this year).

The main goal of this meeting was to negotiate the renewal of the leasing period of the 14 aircraft JAS-39C Gripen in service in the Czech armed forces. The previous contract was signed in 2004 during the mandate of the social-democrat Vladimir Spidla for a sum of 19.6 billion Czech crowns (around 780 million euros) and will come to an end in December 2014.

Since February 2012, Czech and Swedish negotiators are striving to define new conditions in order to extend the leasing period of the fighters. Ms. Enström came supposedly to the meeting with a new proposal envisaging three different variants depending on the contract duration. All three variants could include an upgrade of the aircraft currently operated in the Czech Air Force:

  • Ten-year leasing: 26% discount
  • Five-year leasing: 20% discount
  • Three-year leasing: 3% discount

As for the precedent negotiation rounds, the Czech delegation squarely refused these conditions which may exceed its financial capabilities. Mr. Vondra underlined: “we wish to keep a supersonic air force but a second thing is also involved. Economical capabilities of the State and of the Ministry are not without limit and the economical point of view will be decisive.” Putting forward that the Swedish company is the only competitor, Czechs want a substantial discount.

Both sides agreed to go on with the negotiations until 30th November which is the deadline fixed to the Ministry of Defense by the Czech government. The Czech delegation will be headed by General Vlastimil Picek, the former Chief of Defense Staff and current first Deputy Minister in charge of international relations.

In order to precise the Czech position, Mr. Vondra declared that if both countries were not able to come to an agreement, the Czech Republic could choose to extend the current leasing for two or three years to have enough time to open an open tender. The Swedish fighter would be then in concurrence with other jets like the Eurofighter, the F-16 or even the F-35, the most modern aircraft of American company Lockheed-Martin.

These ministerial declarations could appear as a bluffing strategy because Swedes perfectly know that the current Czech government desperately wishes to keep those supersonic fighters in order to be able to protect the national airspace. Moreover President Klaus repeatedly declared that the Czech Republic should keep an independent capability to defend its own territory.

Moreover, the Gripen is the only plane of this category which perfectly fits the Czech needs: a small and fast aircraft, easy to operate and with limited maintenance costs. One should also take in consideration that the Czech crews and mechanics are trained on Gripen and that infrastructure is meeting the specific standards of this aircraft.

Changing fighter would be extremely expensive, not only because of the acquisition costs. Rafale and Eurofighter are to polyvalent for the Czech needs and too expensive for their financial capabilities; Mr. Vondra’s reference to F-35 is close to science-fiction regarding the astronomical price of this aircraft. The only reasonable sparring partner of Gripen would be the F-16, provided that the Americans are ready to consent substantial discount. However the Polish experience with F-16 (excessive training and maintenance costs) drives other countries in Central Europe to be doubly careful.

The only thing which could raise doubts on the Swedish side would be the defense budget cuts that are envisaged in the coming years. As of current information, the Czech defense budget should get 38.8 billion crowns (1.56 billion euro) in 2013 and 35.7 billion crowns (1.4 billion euros) in 2014. Those 10-percent cuts every year would hardly consent such a big investment as the supersonic fighter one.
Without any doubt negotiations will be tough but reasons exist to be optimistic: both sides are eager to come to an agreement. A proposal combining a 25% discount - that is to say a slightly smaller discount than the one consented for a ten-year period of leasing (-26%) - with a five-year leasing - which is the contract duration expected by Czechs - would be obviously very tempting.