Vipers and Venoms for the Czech Air Force

 - August 23, 2019, 4:18 AM
The Czech Republic is the first overseas customer to select the Venom/Viper combination. (photo: Bell)

Speaking to reporters during a visit to a Czech military base on August 21, the country’s defense minister, Lubomir Metnar, stated that the Bell UH-1Y Venom and AH-1Z Viper had been selected as a replacement for the air force’s Mil Mi-24/35s, a decision also acknowledged by Bell. The Czechs plan to buy eight UH-1Y utility/armed assault helicopters and four AH-1Z dedicated attack helicopters as part of a wider effort to increase defense spending toward a goal of 2 percent of GDP.

Worth $622 million, the deal is due to be finalized before the end of the year, with deliveries scheduled to be complete by the end of 2023. The mix of Textron Bell helicopters was selected in preference to an offer for 12 Lockheed Martin/Sikorsky UH-60M Black Hawks with armament options. Offers for both packages were formally delivered to the Czech Republic in July by the U.S. ambassador, following their approval by the State Department in early May. While the UH-60 proposal was slightly cheaper, it is understood that the Czech defense ministry desires more dedicated attack firepower.

Based on the Twin Huey and Cobra airframes respectively, the UH-1Y and AH-1Z share around 85 percent parts commonality, including powerplant, drivetrain, rotor system, tailboom, controls, displays and avionics architecture. This greatly reduces the logistics and maintenance costs associated with operating two seemingly different types. The pair was developed for the U.S. Marine Corps, which deploys them in joint units. First fielded by the Marines in 2009, the UH-1Y is primarily an assault transport but can be armed with guns and weapons such as the APKWS laser-guided rocket. The AH-1Z, which was declared operational in 2010, has an undernose turret housing a three-barrel M197 20mm cannon, and stub wings for the carriage of rockets and missiles—including up to 16 AGM-114 Hellfires.

The Czech air force has been seeking a replacement for part of its Russian-built helicopter fleet for some years, having operated (as the Czechoslovak air force) the Mi-24 since the late 1970s. The current fleet of Mi-24/35s was acquired in the mid-2000s. An earlier attempt to replace them was based on a selection between the Leonardo AW139M and the UH-1Y, but the acquisition was abandoned until resurrected in its current form earlier this year.

In the meantime, the Czech air force has elected to maintain its relatively young Mi-171Sh transport helicopters in service until at least 2030. Sixteen were supplied new from Russia in the mid-2000s as debt repayments, and the 15 survivors are to receive upgrades, including additional armor and satellite communications. At the same time, they are receiving transponders that enhance their NATO compatibility, and provide compliance with civilian air traffic requirements.