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Successor of Gripen: situation update

Published : 13 November 2012
1 121 words in that article

November is the last month of negotiation between Swedes and Czech for renewing the contract of leasing for aircraft JAS-39 Gripen in service in the Czech armed forces. Some articles in the newspapers talk about the preparation of a public call for tenders, possibly managed by NATO Support Agency (NSPA). NSPA is the new NATO’s logistics and Services provider that is born from the combination of former NATO Supply and Maintenance Agency (NAMSA), Central Europe Pipeline management Agency (CEPMA) and NATO Airlift Management Agency (NAMA).

What is the meaning of those repeated articles in the press three weeks before the end of the negotiations between Swedes and Czechs? Is that a mean to tell Swedes that they should be cautious and propose reasonable price for new contract (see Opinicus article from 24th September)?

Effectively, in case of public call for tenders, the Swedish aircraft would compete with other fighters (American F-16, potentially Eurofighter, why not French Mirage 2000-9, which is a good jet of the same generation as F-16). This could lead to better prices because of the higher competition. This is at least the Czech assumption and is the only advantage of such an option compared with many drawbacks.

A possible breakdown in the Czech air defense capabilities

The leasing contract of the Gripen will come to an end on 31st December 2014. Two years from now are a very short period to negotiate a new contract. In case of acquisition, the new aircraft could reasonably enter in service around 2016, even 2017, which means a two-year breakdown in the Czech air defense capabilities.

The Czech Ministry of defense is envisaging several solutions to cope with this loss of capacity:

  • Extension of the Gripen’s leasing for a limited period of time (2-3 years),
  • Ask for NATO help with an air policing system identical to the one of Baltic States,
  • Defense of Czech air space by Slovak Mig-29.

However, each of those potential solutions appears as not very compatible with the Czech point of view:

  • The extension of the leasing period of Gripen jets would be charged by Swedes according to the current fares, or with a very limited reduction. This would extend as well the financial burden on a Czech defense budget, which is on the verge of suffocation, and postpone too the other investment projects in other sectors (Future Soldier, replacement of howitzers DANA, replacement of small jets for transportation of political authorities);
  • Asking for Air policing from NATO, even for a limited period, would damage the image of Czech Republic. Effectively, the Czech contribution to NATO NATINADS is put forward as its capacity to be a provider of security and not only a security consumer. Moreover, the country would have to refund the expenses of countries ensuring its air defense, which would only reduce a few the burdens on the Czech budget. Because, if the Czech pilots don’t want to lose their qualifications, they would have to train elsewhere and the Czech Republic would have to buy flight hours. The national L-159 ALCAs, that are good trainers before jumping on supersonic jets, would not be sufficient to keep the pilots’ qualifications. It would be as if somebody asked Formula 1 pilots to keep fit by training with karts.
  • Having the Slovak Mig-29 ensure the defense of Czech airspace is a very attractive solution in a time of enhanced cooperation between the two countries (see Opinicus article from 1st November). However, would Slovakia, which is also fiercely struck by economic crisis, be capable to maintain such an effort for a long period of time? It is possible to defend the Czech airspace for some days, as it was the case in last May when a Russian An-30 crashed in Časlav. Keeping this effort several years is a different task. Slovakia has 10 modernized Mig-29, even if some rumors say that only 3 are operational due to the lack of financial resources. Would a defense of the Czech airspace in thoses conditions be credible?

Resorting to NSPA for a unique acquisition would be coherent?

Czech defense minister Alexandr Vondra is a strong supporter of acquisitions through NSPA, the successor of NAMSA. The Czech Republic bought last year ammunition using that opportunity for an amount of 200 million crowns (8 million euros). It is quick, cheap and you get the best prices. At first glance it is a quite attractive solution, because it can reduce as well the risks of corruption which is the main problem of the Czech acquisitions of armament of the last 20 years.

But what is valid for an ammunition acquisition, because NSPA can make some economy of scale by grouping orders coming from various States, is less evident for a jet acquisition by a single country. The NATO Agency is the best tool when there is a need of coordination between countries that have similar needs. Will this Agency be as efficient in that case? Economy of scale is not possible, no coordination is required… And it would not be good for the reputation of the brand new Office of central acquisition which has been set up, following the recommendations of 2010 White Paper on Defense, in order to improve the best practices in the field of defense acquisitions. Asking NSPA to perform this task would demonstrate that the country does not trust its own structure. So very quickly voices could ask for dissolution of a body that has no use if acquisitions are realized by NATO.

And people should not forget that Minister Vondra could leave the Ministry within days or weeks. Effectively, after his defeat during last October senatorial elections, Mr. Vondra is facing political difficulties and could be forced to resign soon. The new minister could have a different opinion about NSPA and it is too early to confirm that trend.

So what are those declarations in the Czech media linked with preparation of a public call for tenders?

First of all, we can say that those rumors are likely because every good soldier is a good planner in order to react quickly to any contingency.
Those leaks in the press a few days before the last round of negotiations with Sweden are probably a way to show that the Swedish offer is not the only available solution. So to say that the price should be reasonable!
Will this show of muscles have an effect on the Swedish delegation? I think that it will work in a certain extent but not decisively: Swedes know that their fighter perfectly fits the Czech needs, the Czech infrastructure is tailored for Gripen and the Czech personnel are trained on this aircraft. We only need a little bit of additional patience to observe with interest the last round.