Two approved foreign military sales (FMS) proposals by the U.S. State Department indicate the direction the Czech Republic wants to take as it seeks to phase out the Army of the Czech Republic’s (ACR) existing helicopter inventory in favor of more modern, non-Russian alternatives.
The core helicopter program on tap is the replacement of the ACR’s remaining Mil Mi-24 “Hind” attack helicopters – previously slated for retirement in 2017 and 2018, but which remain in service – with new-build, armed multipurpose helicopters of types utilized by fellow NATO allies.
Two years ago, the Czech Republic appeared set to move forward with this project after weighing bids from Bell Helicopter (offering its UH-1Y Venom), Lockheed Martin-Sikorsky (offering up the UH-60 Black Hawk), Airbus Helicopters (H145M), and Leonardo (AW139). A government-to-government Foreign Military Sales request by Prague for a dozen UH-1Ys was approved by the U.S. State Department and announced to Congress on October 11, 2017.
While reports at the time indicated that the Bell offering was the favored contender (and that the ACR and Defense Ministry had both recommended its selection), one wrench in a final decision arrived with the parliamentary elections in October 2017 and a change in government.
Incoming Defense Minister Karla Slechtova announced on January 23, 2018, that the planned procurement would be delayed due to a lack of progress in the selection process and purportedly inaccurate reports pertaining to the original tendering process. Thus, the entire initiative went back to the drawing board.
Now the Czech government is laying the groundwork for a reboot of the process with FMS requests sent to Washington regarding possible procurement of 12 UH-60M Black Hawks and four AH-1Z/UH-1Y Vipers, respectively. Both requests were given approval by the State Department with notification to Congress sent on May 3.
Meanwhile, Leonardo Helicopters is waiting for an official Czech tender to be launched around the third quarter of this year in the hopes of snagging the contract. The company plans to offer up its AW139M replete with workshare opportunities and technology know-how to local Czech industry. The FMS requests to the U.S., by comparison, offer no direct offset opportunities.
For the Czech Republic, replacing the aging inventory of mostly Russian-legacy helicopters will involve small-scale purchases, initially, that may grow – as in the instance of the Mi-24 replacement – over time. However, despite consistent growth to the national defense budget since 2015, unit-for-unit replacements are unlikely due to improved capabilities of modern alternatives and cost.
After years of neglecting the ACR, the Czech government must now conduct a comprehensive modernization effort that will involve multiple programs ranging from medium-size transport aircraft to armored vehicles to air defense systems and radars. The smaller size of the much-pruned post-independence ACR means less capacity is required, but greater capability is necessary.
The Mi-24 replacement project represents just one element – albeit a crucial one – in the Czech Defense Ministry’s Concept 2025 and Long-Term Outlook for 2030 plans.