Paris Air Show

Visegrad4 Seek To Boost Their Air Power

 - June 20, 2019, 2:28 AM
Poland continues to fly the MiG-29, but is looking to the West for a replacement. The F-35A is considered the front-runner.

In Central Eastern Europe (CEE), the Visegrad4 Group (Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Hungary) maintain the core of the region’s air power. As former Warsaw Pact countries, they operated Soviet/Russian-made equipment, and all four are currently converting to modern Western makes. The transformation is not simple: funding issues and political will determine the nature and speed of it. Relations with Moscow also constitute a factor, although not as strong as it would seem.

Poland, militarily by far the strongest of the four, maintains the most negative political relationship with Russia. Nevertheless, its percentage of Russian/Soviet equipment as a whole is not significantly smaller than that in the other three countries. Hungary’s (and to a lesser extent Slovakia’s) relations with the Russian Federation are considered the closest of the four, with the Czech Republic standing in the middle. Nevertheless, in May 2018 the incoming defense minister in Hungary kicked off an unprecedented re-armament campaign, involving air and land force assets bought from Western countries.

All four V4 nations need to maintain some defense-related contacts with the Russians out of necessity. In the late transition period (well after the 1989-1990 regime changes) all four countries simultaneously deployed Soviet/Russian aircraft and air defense assets as they introduced newly acquired Western weapons systems. This is typical in the field of fixed- and rotary-wing aircraft. All four V4 members plan to use the Mi-8/17/24 multipurpose helicopters over the next three to five years as key tasks are assigned to the new equipment of U.S., Franco-German, and Italian origin. With the fighter-bomber (multirole) fixed-wing aircraft there are similar patterns to follow.

Poland—which has the largest fleet of fighter-bomber-ground attack aircraft—keeps the MiG-29 and Su-22 in service alongside F-16s, but is now seeking a replacement. In late May a request for details concerning the acquisition of F-35As was sent to Washington. Hungary and the Czech Republic—which each leased a squadron of NATO-compatible JAS 39 Gripen fighters (10 JAS 39Cs and two JAS 39Ds)—have already decommissioned their MiG-29s. Hungary lost two Gripens in 2015, which were later replaced or repaired. The Czech Republic’s extended leasing contract expires in 2029. Hungary decides in 2026, after the expiration of the modified lease agreement, whether to buy the aircraft or acquire another type, with the F-35 or new F-16s being possible options.

Hungary has been trying unsuccessfully to sell its retired MiG-29s (many of them were poorly maintained), while the Czech Republic followed another path. In the mid-1990s, 10 Czech air force “mothballed” MiG-29s were bartered with Poland for PZL-Swidnik W-3 Sokol helicopters, as the Czechs urgently needed them to replace their own obsolete Mi-2s. Germany transferred 22 MiG-29s (of the former East German Air Force) to Poland in 2003, as the Luftwaffe took delivery of new Eurofighter Typhoons.

For their part the Russians, after the Soviet Union had fallen apart and the Warsaw Pact disbanded, followed a tactic of repaying their outstanding loans with military hardware to keep the former allied (Warsaw Pact) countries—now NATO members—dependent as far as servicing, spare parts, and resale permission are concerned. Thus, Hungary received new MiG-29 air superiority fighters (withdrawn from service, although they were relatively new with at least five to 10 years’ service life remaining).

All the Central Eastern Europe NATO partners show the symptom of a specific “diversity” in their arms procurement pattern and equipment acquisition. Both the Czech and the Hungarian Air Forces fly the same aircraft (JAS 39 Gripen C/D) but as of now, there is no large-scale cooperation in joint procurement of spare parts, ordnance, aircraft upgrade, or establishing joint servicing/MRO-facilities. The same situation prevails with the other pair, Poland and Slovakia, which fly F-16s or have them on order. Three of the four V4 air forces have the Raytheon AGM-65 air-to-ground missile in service, and there is plenty of opportunity for joint support, but these countries do not seem to fully exploit the synergy. A glimmer of hope appeared in September 2018 as the Czech and Slovak prime ministers agreed to pursue joint procurement—but it concerns only suppliers from the two countries.

As a whole, V4 countries, like most of the region, made large increases in military expenditure in 2018. Defense spending in Poland during the past year rose by 8.9 percent. The increases in CEE spending are largely due to perceptions of a threat emanating from Russia, Pieter Wezeman, a senior researcher with SIPRI AMEX program said, despite the fact that Russian military spending has fallen for the past two years. In 2018 Moscow spent 3.5 percent less on defense than in 2017.

The diversity characterizes both procurement processes and supply sources. As far as the V4 concerned, in the past years, Poland centered on U.S. defense equipment suppliers, while the Czech Republic and especially Hungary presented a more balanced approach in terms of supplier base. European manufacturers constituted the backbone of Hungary’s air force/air defense-related procurement. Hungary procured 20 Airbus H145M and 16 H225M helicopters, together with two A319 transports. According to media sources, the purpose of the Hungarian prime minister’s recent Washington trip was to tilt the balance by preparing a large-scale acquisition of a U.S.-made mid-range air defense system to replace the obsolete Russian 2K12 KUBs.

In late 2018 Slovakia signed a $1.8 billion procurement contract with the DoD for Lockheed Martin F-16V Block 70/72 combat aircraft (12 single-seat, two tandem-seat). It includes delivery of AIM-120C7 AMRAAM and AIM-9X air-to-ground missiles. Poland and the Czech Republic want to buy attack/recce helicopters. Prague’s Aero Vodochody has accelerated the certification of the new L-39NG trainer/light attack aircraft. The Czech MoD allocated $450 million to procure two more Airbus C295 transport aircraft as well as to replace its KUB 2K12 SAMs with a short-range air defense system. Hungary has plans to buy a transport aircraft with a loading ramp.