Russian intervention in Ukraine has provided increased impetus toward military modernization efforts in Eastern Europe. The region’s allies remain largely dependent on Soviet-designed aircraft, as demonstrated by the presence of Mikoyan MiG fighters in their air fleets, but a number of countries are in the process of procuring Western-made jets and helos to upgrade their air combat and transport capacities.
Countries pursuing programs to replace their outdated aircraft include Poland, Romania, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Bulgaria and Croatia. Larger players, such as Warsaw and Bucharest, hope to use the procurements to attract investments by Western players. In addition to ensuring that their new copters would be produced locally, this would also allow Poland- and Romania-based plants to supply their output to other countries in the region. Increased defense spending in Eastern Europe is to ensure sufficient demand for helos.
Defense budgets on the rise
Jakub Janda, the deputy director of the Prague-based European Values think tank and an external consultant to the Czech government on Moscow’s disinformation efforts, told Defense News that the Russian-backed intervention in Eastern Ukraine has triggered increased spending and focus on defense capacities by the country’s decision-makers.
“In early 2014, Czech political parties signed an agreement to raise the defense spending to 1.4 percent of the GDP by 2020, so Moscow’s actions have initiated an awakening among the Czech political establishment. Russia’s aggression against Ukraine [also pushed] the Czech government to update the Czech national security strategy in 2015,” Janda said. “Moreover, the Czech government has launched a national security audit, which led to the development of a new policy aimed mainly at countering hostile influence … from Russia.”
This year, the Czech defense expenditure is to total over 52.53 billion krona, worth $6.5 billion. This represents a 10 percent increase compared with 2016 and makes this year’s defense budget the largest in absolute numbers since 2007.
According to Janda, the Czech defense and security establishment has always seen Russia as the main state actor that poses a potential military threat to the Czech Republic.
“Now the politicians realized it as well,” the analyst said.
The Czech Republic already operates a fleet of Saab’s JAS 39 Gripen fighters and pays about 1.3 billion krona per year, worth $161 million annually, for its 14 jets. To replace the Air Force’s outdated Soviet-designed Mil transport helos, Prague is also planning to spend up to 12 billion krona, equal to $1.48 billion, to purchase about a dozen new copters. The leading contenders for the contract reportedly include two U.S. and two European industry players, and the offered helos include Sikorsky’s UH-60 Black Hawk, Bell’s UH-1Y, Airbus Helicopters’ H145M and Leonardo’s AW139.
In neighboring Slovakia last April, the country’s government obtained the State Department’s approval to purchase nine Bell 429 light utility helos under a deal worth an estimated $150 million. Bell is also the preferred option in Romania, where last August, the defense ministry signed a letter of intent with the manufacturer under which it is to acquire new combat helos. Under the plan, the producer is to establish a joint venture with a subsidiary of the country’s state-owned defense group Romarm to make copters in Romania and offer them to other potential customers in the region.
F-16, Gripen dominate tenders
The F-16 and the Gripen are the most widely considered options in the region’s fighter jet tenders. Lockheed Martin’s aircraft is the preferred choice in Romania, whose Defense Ministry plans to purchase 36 F-16s by 2020, according to a government strategy approved in August. The procurement is to be developed as part of a €9.8 billion, worth $11.5 billion, package to finance military procurements from 2017 to 2026.
In Croatia, where the authorities aim to acquire at least 18 fighter jets to replace outdated MiGs, the F-16 and the Gripen are the leading contenders, but considered alternatives comprise France’s Mirage, Israeli Kfir and a variant of the South Korean T-50.
Due to limited funds, Bulgaria’s Defense Ministry is mulling plans to purchase eight second-hand fighters. Three offers were submitted earlier this year, including Portugal’s F-16s, Sweden’s Gripens, as well as Italy’s Eurofighter Typhoon. But Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borisov said last July that his government should focus on buying new fighters, not used ones.
In addition to the Czech Republic, the Gripen is already operated by Hungary, which leased 14 Swedish-made fighter jets, of which 12 aircraft are currently operable. Hoping that the Slovak government would also place an order for the Gripens, the Czech government has been considering to establish a joint air squadron with Hungary as the third partner. This said, Slovakia’s plan to replace the MiG-29s with new new fighters was postponed last year after Bratislava, Hungary’s capitol city, decided to extend the servicing contract for its Soviet-designed aircraft.
Poland, another operator of the MiG-29 in the region, has perhaps the most ambitious acquisition plans and the largest defense budget, with 37.4 billion zloty, worth $10.3 billion, earmarked for 2017, but the Defense Ministry has been struggling to accelerate its aircraft procurements. Since the incumbent government scrapped its plan to purchase 50 Caracal helos from Airbus Helicopters in October 2016, no replacement supplier has been announced. Lockheed Martin, Airbus and Leonardo have applied to take part in the relaunched copter tender.
Last June, Deputy Defense Minister Tomasz Szatkowski unveiled plans to acquire 5th-generation fighter jets for the Polish Air Force around 2025. Defense Ministry officials say that Warsaw is considering to purchase two squadrons of F-35 Lightning II jets, comprising 32 aircraft. The acquisition would add to the country’s existing fleet of 48 F-16 fighter jets and allow Poland to phase out its Sukhoi Su-22 and Mikoyan MiG-29 aircraft. However, an official procedure is yet to be launched, and offset negotiations are likely to be lengthy and cumbersome.