Over the past few months, four Central European states have made decisions which will determine the shape of their air forces over the next decade. On 11 October, Romania signed a contract under which it will buy twelve used US F-16A/B multi-role fighter aircraft from Portugal. In August, Slovakia signed contracts with Russia’s MiG for repairs and the limited modernisation of its twelve MiG-29 fighter aircraft currently in service. The Czech Republic entered into a preliminary agreement in July with Sweden on extending the lease of fourteen JAS-39 Gripen multi-role fighter aircraft (the new Czech government will hammer out the details following the parliamentary election).
Bulgaria, which has been facing financial problems and political instability, in June postponed the purchase of new (non-Soviet) combat aircraft at least until the end of this year. If Sofia decides to buy any within the next few years, these will be not more than twelve relatively old and worn-out machines (most likely F-16A/B from Portuguese or Dutch army surplus).
Given the fact that Hungary in 2012 made the same decision regarding its fourteen Gripen aircraft as the Czech Republic, there are good grounds to claim that the capabilities Central European NATO member states have to take action in airspace are durably limited.
The region’s saturation with combat aircraft is the lowest when compared to the entire continent (with the exception of the Baltic states). Furthermore, the machines to be used in the coming decade will be the oldest and the least advanced technologically (all of them belong to the so-called “fourth generation”, the roots of which date back to the 1970s).
The problem with gaining full interoperability within NATO has not been resolved in its Central European member states. By modernising its MiG-29 aircraft, Slovakia is to say the least postponing the achievement of interoperability once again. Bulgaria will gain interoperability by buying any Western combat aircraft. However, it is very unlikely to introduce new machines into service earlier than at the end of the present decade. Since the introduction of new fifth generation multi-role combat aircraft or transitional 4+ generation machines in the region’s air forces is unrealistic, the defence of the airspace of NATO member states in Central Europe can be termed an ever more porous sky.
Tribute to NATO
When the states of Central Europe joined NATO (the Czech Republic, Poland and Hungary in 1999, Bulgaria, Romania and Slovakia in 2004) they needed to adjust their armed forces to NATO standards, including technical standards, in order to gain compatibility and interoperability. While NATO viewed a relatively simple replacement of means of communication and command in the new NATO member states as being sufficient for the ground forces and navy, in the case of the air forces, NATO considered full interoperability (capability to take joint action during combat) would be achieved when their combat aircraft would be replaced with machines based on Western constructions.
Another stimulus for the modernisation of the stock of combat aircraft was the increasingly high costs for their purchase and use. This provided the grounds for changing the tactical requirements for this category of weapons. It was already during the decline of the Cold War that the focus was placed on developing a construction that would combine the capabilities required in classical air combat and attacking ground targets. The reduction in the number of types of combat aircraft in use made it possible to save a lot of money.
In effect, most medium-sized and small NATO member states switched to using one type of multi-role fighter aircraft (the US F-16 being the most frequent choice) in the 1990s at the latest. The ultimate use of one type of aircraft (referred to as a multi-role combat aircraft or MRCA) is currently the standard in NATO (the exception being the United States, which uses several types of combat aircraft, and also the United Kingdom in the medium term). No evolution of this kind has taken place in Soviet constructions, on which the military equipment of the new NATO member states is based (work on multi-role aircraft commenced in Russia as late as in the 1990s).
The Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland were the first (and until October this year, the only ones among the Central European NATO member states) to have obtained multi-role combat aircraft based on Western constructions. In 2004, the Czech Republic leased fourteen Swedish JAS-39C/D Gripen aircraft, and was granted the right to use them until 2014. Hungary also leased fourteen machines of the same kind, valid until 2016. Budapest signed two agreements: one in 2001 concerning JAS-39A/B (older generation aircraft) and one in 2003, under which newer JAS-39C/D aircraft were purchased. However, the Hungarian air forces received the Gripens as late as in 2006.
Poland was the only one among these countries to buy a larger quantity of new aircraft, forty eight US F-16C/D Block 52, which at that time was the most cutting-edge version (they were supplied in 2006–2008). Despite the declared multi-role capabilities, the Gripen aircraft supplied to the Czech Republic and Hungary were classical fighters unable to attack ground targets. The aircraft purchased by Poland were the only ones which could be classified as multi-role.
The attempts made by Bulgaria and Romania since the mid-90s to acquire Western aircraft have been unsuccessful each time for financial reasons. Slovakia has not made any such efforts; its air force has been unalterably based on post-Soviet MiG-29 aircraft, which were upgraded in the previous decade in co-operation with Russia to AS standard. MiG-29 fighters, adjusted to achieve limited interoperability within NATO, have been the basic combat aircraft in the region for years.
Apart from Slovakia, they are still in use in Bulgaria and Poland. The Czech Republic ceased to use MiG-29 aircraft already in 1995 (it was temporarily using older MiG-21 fighters manufactured in Czechoslovakia under a licence). Romania withdrew MiG-29 in 2003 (similarly to the Czech Republic, it used the post-Soviet MiG-21 construction upgraded by the Czech industry to Lancer standard, which partly met the requirements of a multi-role machine), and Hungary withdrew them in 2010. (end of excerpt)
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