November 3, 2003 (by Lieven Dewitte) - The Czech armed forces faces a straight choice between Lockheed Martin-made F-16 Fighting Falcons and JAS-39 Gripen aircraft produced by Saab/BAE Systems to fulfill their mid-term air defense needs after offers were submitted by five countries last Friday.
The Czech Republic had asked nine countries to bid on a contract to supply the Czech Air Force with 12 single-seater and two (used) double-seater planes. The fighters, which will replace the country's aging Russian-built MiG 21's, may be purchased or leased.
The U.S. offered single-seater F-16A block 15
's and two-seater F-16 block 10
OCU's (Operational Capabilities Upgrade). Belgium
and the Netherlands
offered F-16's in MLU
(Mid-Life Update) modification. Canada joined with an offer of the U.S. Navy modified version of Lockheed Martin's F-18 Hornet now made under license by Boeing and called the CF-18.
The sole offer of a non-U.S. made jet came from Sweden. They have offered to sell the Czech Republic new JAS-39 Gripen supersonic fighter jets for the price of secondhand planes. No price details of the five offers were released.
France, which had expressed interest and was expected to offer Mirage supersonic jets, did not meet the Friday deadline. Britain, Turkey
, and Germany had earlier withdrawn from the tender.
The manufacturer of the used jets selected now to guard Czech skies will be in prime position to sell new jets to the country when the government decides the time is right to buy them. Between 2005-2007, the Czech Defense Ministry plans to invest CZK 1.5 bn annually in fighter planes, and an additional CZK 3 bn to CZK 4 bn between 2008-2015. That makes the competition to supply second-hand jets important for major manufacturers and the countries where they're based.
A 35-member committee formed by representatives of the Ministry of Defense, Ministry of Industry and Trade, and Ministry of Foreign Affairs was scheduled to start analyzing the offers on Monday. It should submit its recommendation to the government on which aircraft to buy by Nov. 30. The Cabinet should vote on which jets to purchase by the end of the year. The government is expected to make a final decision by the end of 2003, and a contract should be signed next spring.
New Gripens were favored by the Czech government until the government scrapped the tender after the floods last August, saying there were insufficient public funds for such a purchase. Neighboring Hungary decided in 2001 to lease14 new Gripens. Delivery of the jets should begin in 2006.
The U.S. is backing all three offers of F-16s and the remaining CF-18 offer. The F-16s offered by the U.S. are believed to be worse options for the Czech army than those offered by the Dutch and Belgians. Both countries are offering F-16s that underwent a major modernization called a MLU, or Mid-Life Update, which is only provided in Europe.
The U.S. F-16s have not undergone the modernization yet, but a U.S. military official present at the Czech Ministry of Defense on Friday said a similar modernization is planned before shipment to the Czech Republic. "The aircraft were originally built 20 years ago, but before delivery to the Czech Republic they would be fully refurbished, equipped with new engines and any other necessary work to make them perfectly flyable," he said.
F-16s entered service in 1979. It was expected that they would be replaced by a successor jet in 1999 but that replacement plane has not been built. F-16s are now likely to remain in active service until 2010. In order to maintain the same level of operational capabilities and effectiveness of existing aircraft over the next 10 to 20 years, the MLU modernization program was developed.
Industry experts say the U.S.-made jets have the advantage that the aircraft have flown combat missions whereas the Gripens have not. Both the F-16 and the CF-18 were used in the Gulf War, the war in Kosovo, and in the conflict in Iraq
Two weeks ago, the government said it would purchase used jets directly without holding a public tender because time was limited. The main opposition, the Civic Democrats (ODS), and Transparency International immediately blasted the decision, saying that a tender should be held no matter how much time pressure the government was under. The announcement by the Czech Cabinet that it would buy 14 used fighter jets without a tender came as no surprise to military officials in Prague two week ago who told PBJ that the government was rushing to buy the planes after being sharply chastised by NATO
for not having met the schedule of reform and modernization of the Czech army.