The year 2017 will be the year that for the first time in history sees joint air defense over four European countries. Not only are Belgium and the Netherlands operating a combined Quick Reaction Alert (QRA) since 1 January 2017, starting this summer the Czech Republic and Slovakia will do the same. The latter countries today agreed on cooperation.
The joint efforts are quite remarkable in a time of increasing international tension, although the combined effort of Belgium and the Netherlands has been on the cards for quite some time already. Whereas until last year both countries each had four F-16s on constant standby, they now take turns in keeping an eye out for airliners gone astray or potential threats, thus saving costs. Being small countries, they apparently can afford slighly longer transit times for the F-16s to get close to the action.
Czechs and Slovaks
The Czechs and Slovakians also talked about joint air defense before, but mostly in light of Slovakia maybe also leasing Saab Gripen fighter jets, as does the Czech Republic. While Slovakia for now continues to operate older MiG-29 Fulcrums, both countries today still agreed to keep a watch over each other’s skies. The agreement should be officaly ratified and come into effect later this year.
Meanwhile, it will be interesting to see what effect the cooperation between Belgium and the Netherlands has on the former’s selection of a new fighter jet to replace the F-16. The Netherlands has already opted for the F-35 Lightning II, but Belgium is still undediced. The Belgians are looking at the F-35, Boeing F/A-18 Super Hornet, Saab gripen and Dassault Rafale.
The third edition of Czech-led international Joint Terminal Attack Controller (JTAC) exercise Ample Strike kicked off in the Czech Republic this week. For the next three week, no less than seventeen Allied and Partnership for Peace nations train their JTACs, aircrew and ground units in realistic, complex and demanding scenarios.
Ample Strike is aimed at providing realistic training for controllers on the ground in a combat environment. “It offers the perfect venue for effective collaboration between air and ground, forces preparing them to respond to joint missions whenever needed,” said Czech Air Force Commander Jaromir Sebesta. The exercise continues the tradition of similar exercise Ramstein Rover in Germany.
Taking part are a total of 34 aircraft from Lithuania, Slovenia, Germany, Poland, Hungary and the US, plus troops from even more countries. The US sends B-1B and B-52H long range bombers, operating from Fairford airbase in the UK. Most aircraft operate from airbases within the Czech Republic.
Novelty Adding to exercise complexity and a novelty for Ample Strike, are air-to-air refuelling missions during tactical strike and bomber missions. US Air Force KC-135R tankers will refuel
not only the German Tornado jets, Czech and Hungarian Gripen aircraft, but also the US strategic bombers.
Last year, Ample Strike achieved a record 1600 control runs, allowing JTACs to keep up their skills of controlling aircraft in support forces on the ground. In 2016, Ample Strike is not about exceeding this number, but about providing even more complex and challenging integrated scenarios.
Slovakia is not leasing or buying Saab Gripen fighter jets and neither is it seeking a joint Gripen unit with the Czech Republic anymore. According to local media this week, funds don’t allow for eight JAS39 Gripens to be leased or purchased.
In Slovakia, the Saab Gripen would have replaced a small fleet of ageing MiG-29 Fulcrum fighter jets that have been in service since the late eighties. The country is now looking to keep eight MiGs in the air for longer, with contacts already with Russian suppliers.
Czech Gripens may still be called upon in case this change of plans leads to reduced serviceability of Slovakian MiGs. The Czechs would be able to guard Slovakian airspace for roughly three months.
UPDATED 4 November | Eight former Czech Air Force L-159 Alca trainer and light attack aircaft are heading to Iraq in November. They will join the Iraqi Air Force in a deal brokered by US company Draken International. A total of 21 Aero Vodochody L-159 will transfer to Draken International, with an initial eight of those moving on to Iraq. Four more are to follow, plus three spares.
UPDATE | The first L-159s left the Czech Republic on Wednesday 4 November, wearing Iraqi markings. See pics below.
The deal has been in the works for quite some time, with negotiations lasting 18 months and signatures finally inked in 2014. The number of aircaft sold varied a little while talks lasted, but both parties settled for 21 in the end. The Czech Air Force still has 24 L-159 Alcas in service with 212 squadron at Čáslav airbase.
Czech Air Force Saab Gripen pilots this weekend honored their combined total of 20,000 flight hours on the Saab JAS39 Gripen. The milestone was celebrated during the Ostrava NATO Days airshow. The flight hours were accumulated during ten years of flying the Gripen. Back then, the Czechs were the first to trade their Soviet style MiGS for Western style fighter aircraft.
Saab’s Deputy CEO Lennart Sindhal presented a commemorative glass plaque to the 211. taktické letky (tactical squadron) to mark its 20,000 Gripen flight hours and successful operational deployments within NATO. Recent deployments to Iceland were also recognised. The award was accepted by Colonel Petr Hromek, commander of the 21st Air Force Base, Čáslav.
The Czechs were alread known to be the most extensive user of Saab’s fighter aircraft. Their Gripens fly more hours than even their Swedish coounterparts. The Czech Air Force Saab Gripen fleet is fourteen strong, including twelve single seat C-models and two two seater D-models.