TEN YEARS ON – GRIPEN’S LAIR AT THE HEART OF NATO

Gripen pilots, from left: Lt Col Tomás Fekete (Hungary), Lt Col Jörgen Axelsson (Sweden), Lt Col Jaroslav Míka (Czech Republic) and Captain Chayot Sawansan (Thailand).

This year the Czech Gripen fleet marks a decade in service. The outstanding performance of the system, as demonstrated during NATO exercises and deployments, has increased interest from other Central European countries.

On a sunny May afternoon at the Czech Republic’s Čáslav military air base, Captain Jan Ducha stands beside the runway awaiting the return of one of the 14 Saab Gripens that he swears he loves and nurtures like his own children.

“Beautiful, no?” smiles the commander of Čáslav’s Maintenance Operational Centre, as the Gripen’s grey delta wing and canard silhouette finally materialises against the green of the surrounding countryside. “We’ve had these planes for a decade now, but watching them come in still gives me pleasure.”

In June 2004 the Czech and the Swedish government signed a 10-year, CZK19,6 billion leasing agreement for 12 single-seat Gripen Cs and two D-model trainers. The first flight took place less than a year later, in April 2005.

“Apart from the Swedes themselves, the Czech air force was the first to fly the Gripen,” notes Lieutenant Colonel Jaroslav Míka, Commander of Čáslav’s 211 Squadron. “It was we Czechs who proved that the Gripen was fully NATO-compatible.”

Today the Czech Gripens play their part in European Union Battle Group exercises and NATO’s integrated air and missile defence system. Between October and December 2014, for example, 211 Squadron supplied the main muscle for NATO’s Icelandic Air Policing taskforce. It has provided similar protection for Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania in 2009 and 2012.

Maintenance manager Jan Ducha carries out a service check on a Gripen during the Lion Effort exercise.

Between missions, Míka’s team are regulars in the annual ‘Tiger Meet’ exercises that are designed to promote solidarity between NATO air forces. In May 2015, Čáslav air base hosted the latest triennial multinational Lion Effort exercise, which saw Gripens visiting from Hungary and Sweden while Gripen pilots from the Royal Thai Air Force flew the Czech two-seater aircraft.

“We play war games, we swap tips, we compare notes on how to improve even further on the astonishing 10-minute refuelling/turnaround time,” says Lieutenant Colonel Jörgen Axelsson, who led the Swedish contingent at Lion Effort 2015. “Most of all, we thank our lucky stars for the honour of being paid to fly such a wonderful aircraft!” 

The Czech government has just approved the extension of its lease on the Gripens until 2027 (with an additional two-year option). The Hungarian government reached the same conclusion in 2012, when it extended the lease on its own 14-strong fleet of NATO-compatible Gripen C/Ds until 2026.

A wave of new NATO countries – such as Slovakia, Croatia and Bulgaria – have shown interest in coming on board as well. The Czech Republic and Slovakia recently signed a bilateralagreement on joint airspace surveillance, while Hungary has discussed a similar agreement with Croatia. That arrangement would have significant synergies. Joint training and the shared purchase of spare parts, weaponry and logistics would likely save Central Europe’s Gripen users a great deal of money.

What’s more, the Czechs, Slovaks, Poles and Hungarians are now discussing mutual airspace protection. If cross-border operations were to become routine, a Czech Gripen could easily find itself patrolling Croatian airspace, while Hungary’s Gripens could cross over to Slovakia to refuel.

Lt Col Axelsson led the Swedish
contingentat the 2015 Lion Effort exercise.

 “In the future, it’s not unrealistic that the four countries could even create one united Central European Gripen squadron,” says Czech Defence Ministry spokesman Jan Pejšek.

In the meantime, the Čáslav airbase’s Gripen pilots are looking forward to a series of scheduled hardware and software upgrades. “I’ve said this many  times: we can and will make improvements and updates as technology advances,” says Lieutenant Colonel Míka, “but the C/D version of the Gripen constitutes the core of our capability. We are co-passengers on a very exciting journey, and we have no intention of getting off any time soon!”

Technician Jaroslav Slezak and pilot Pavel Svec carry out final checks on the Gripen prior to take-off from the Čáslav airbase in the Czech Republic.