Slovakia to buy Fighting Falcons

Slovakia to buy Fighting Falcons
Author: S.C. Air National Guard, flickr|Caption: F-16 Fighting Falcon
12 / 07 / 2018, 12:00

On 11th July the Slovak government announced the purchase of fourteen F-16 Fighting Falcon jets by the US General Dynamics Lockheed Martin to replace the Soviet era MiG-29s currently operated by the Slovak Air Force. Slovakia prefers the F-16s over JAS-39 Gripens by the Swedish Saab. The decision is taken amid US president Trump’s criticism that European NATO members do not spend enough on defence.

The Air Force of the Armed Forces of the Slovak Republic deploys 10 MiG-29ASs and 2 MiG-29UBSs (twin-seat trainers) with the 1st Tactical Squadron based in Sliač Air Base in Central Slovakia. They were upgraded for NATO compatibility between 2005 and 2008 with new navigation, communications and IFF (Identification, Friend or Foe) systems and new glass cockpit featuring multi-function LC displays and digital processors, yet they are still not fully compatible with the NATO Integrated Air and Missile Defence (NATO IAMD).

Slovakia has a „joint sky“ agreement with the Czech Republic on mutual air space protection, and as a member of NATO wants to keep supersonic jet capabilities. It has a maintenance contract with Russian Federation for its 12 MiG-29s until autumn 2019 (the planes were produced between 1989 and 1995). Replacement is considered since 2014. First to rent flying hours, as offered by Saab, later to either buy or lease new or used aircraft.

See also: The L-159 Light Attack Jet to serve with the USAF?

In February 2018 the Ministry of Defence said it would submit an analysis of the two options, F-16 and JAS-39, by 29th June for government approval. Any further MiG-29’s modernization was no more considered to be a viable option. The Defense Security Cooperation Agency (DSCA) having delivered the certification notifying US Congress of possible sale of F-16s on 3rd April, the purchase of new 14 F-16 Block 70/72 configuration aircraft, the most recent variant of Fighting Falcon – F-16V „Viper“, was announced yesterday, with the estimated cost of USD 1.3 billion according to Reuters.

It is generally stated that the purchase and operating expense of one F-35 equals to two F-16Vs at the same number of flying hours. The Slovak Minister of Defence Peter Gajdoš said the U.S. jets were selected because they are „top-quality, modern planes, unrivalled in terms of price, quality and compliance, and in terms of what we can afford as a country,” and according to the ministry statement an analysis done through 2040 shows that the F-16Vs were a cheaper option than the JAS-39s. A statement contested by defence analyst Vladimír Bednár, who says the operating costs of the JAS-39 are lower by 1/3 when compared to the F-16, and the JAS-39 would offer the opportunity to share traning and maintenance facilities with the Czech Republic and Hungary.

Among the NATO members the JAS-39 Gripens, introduced in 1996, are operated by the Slovakia’s neighbors: Czech and Hungarian Air Forces (12 JAS-39Cs and 2 JAS-39Ds trainers each), the actual production reaches about 250 Gripens until present; while the F-16s are the most common fighter jets within the Alliance: USA has almost 1,000 F-16s, Netherlands 61, Belgium 54, Denmark 36, Norway 57, Portugal 30, Greece 158, Turkey 236, Romania 12, and, the other Slovakia’s neighbor and V4 group member, Poland operates 48 Fighting Falcons (and is possibly buying more in near future). In total more than 4,500 F-16s were delivered since 1978.

See also: The Czech Gripens at the NATO Tiger Meet 2018

Lockheed Martin’s sale of the F-16Vs to Slovakia is the second order since the company made the decision to move its production line from Fort Worth in Texas to Greenville in South Carolina. According to Aaron Mehta from DefenseNews, the Slovakian sale, coupled with the Bahrain deal, will help Lockheed Martin keep production of the F-16 going while its biggest potential customer, India, figures out what it wants out of a future fighter.

The contract with Slovakia is expected to be signed by the end of 2018, and the first deliveries would arrive within three years from signature of contract. Which means there must be new agreement with the Russian Federation on maintenance of the existing MiGs. Gripens might eventually come earlier, and be delivered in one block allowing complete withdrawal of the MiG-29s, which is one of the arguments raised by the critics of the recent decision of the Slovak government.

Besides the F-16V is generally considered to be a tactically and technically more capabable combat aircraft than the JAS-39, the political argument may have played a major role in Slovak decision. The DSCA news release offers the US perspective:

„This proposed sale will support the foreign policy and national security of the United States by helping to improve the security of a NATO partner that is an important force for ensuring peace and stability in Europe.  The proposed sale will support Slovakia’s needs for its own self-defense and support NATO defense goals.  Slovakia intends to use these F-16s to modernize its Air Force and strengthen its homeland defense.“

Alea iacta est. Slovakia will become the first EU member to operate the brand new F-16Vs, and will strenghten its relations with the United States.

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