The Russian invasion of Ukraine has led many countries around the length and breadth of Europe to strengthen their defenses. As the insecurity from Russia refuses to wean off, now another NATO ally in the Eastern flank, the Czech Republic has decided to join the ‘stealth league.’
Prime Minister Petr Fiala announced that the Czech government has decided to negotiate with the United States for purchasing F-35 Lightning II fighter jets from Lockheed Martin to replace the leased Gripen fighters from Sweden’s Saab.
The stealth aircraft will replace the 14 Saab JAS 39 Gripens that the Czech military presently uses, making it the second ally in Eastern Europe after Poland to acquire stealth fighters from Lockheed Martin.
The talks with the US are expected to be concluded by October 2023.
“This is another step to modernize the army and meet our alliance commitments,” PM Fiala told a live news conference on television. “These are important decisions when the security of Europe and the Czech Republic faces new challenges caused by Russia’s aggression in Ukraine.”
Until the end of 2027, when the lease on the Gripen C/D aircraft expires, Prague will continue to operate the Swedish fighter jets.
Currently, air defense is the primary task for the Czech Gripen fleet. According to a bilateral agreement, the jets locally cover both Czech Republic and adjacent Slovakia. Additionally, they have been sent out on a rotating basis to Iceland and the Baltic States’ airspace. Hungary, too, operates leased Gripens for its air defense.
However, the insecurity in the Czech Republic calls for a more capable fighter. Russian-Czech relations were seriously damaged last year when the Czech Republic expelled dozens of Russian diplomats and claimed that Russian military intelligence was responsible for the explosion at an ammunition stockpile in 2014.
The Ukraine invasion has only aggravated the animosity between the two countries.
We are honored that the Czech Republic is interested in @theF35. As the threat evolves, the F-35 is supporting NATO and European alliance’s next generation of air power. @LockheedMartin looks forward to partnering with the Czech Republic on this opportunity. pic.twitter.com/vvNx16zDXN
— Lockheed Martin Europe (@LMEuropeNews) July 20, 2022
Czech Republic’s neighbor Poland signed a $4.6 billion deal in January 2020 to buy 32 F-35A Lightning II aircraft for Poland’s Air Force, together with a training and logistical package to replace Russian-origin jets in its fleet.
Belgium, Denmark, Finland, Italy, Netherlands, Norway, Poland, and the United Kingdom are the only countries in Europe to have ordered the F-35s. Germany and Greece will likely follow suit, and Switzerland, a non-NATO member, has also opted for US jets.
Setback For SAAB?
The announcement for F-35 came after the Czech government made it clear that it did not want fighter jets in the form of a lease.
To that end, the Swedish ambassador to the Czech Republic, Fredrik Jörgensen, stated that Sweden was ready to give the country a free transfer of the Gripens it has leased from Stockholm, EurAsian Times had previously reported.
The Swedish company, which lost to Lockheed’s F-35 on earlier occasions, especially in the Finland contract, made a last-minute pitch for its fighters by emphasizing that it could deliver the warplanes faster. The Swedish Ambassador also offered the latest Gripen E to the Czech Republic.
In addition to being one of the best warplanes in the world, the new E-series Gripens are also very affordable, the ambassador had emphasized.
“Our decision to select this option is based on the analysis by the Czech Armed Forces, which clearly articulates that only the most advanced 5th-generation fighters will be able to meet mission requirements in future battlefields,” Jana Černochová, the Czech Defence Minister, said.
In 2004, the Czech Republic and Sweden agreed to a lease agreement for 12 single and two-seat Gripen C/D fighter aircraft each. The lease can be extended for two years and expires in 2027.
While SAAB’s pitch was enticing and more cost-effective in its own right, Prague’s politicians and military leaders were already leaning towards the American stealth fighter jet.
According to Maj. Gen. Karel Řehka, chief of general staff for the Czech military, the Czech air force will be able to maintain relevance for decades to come thanks to the fifth-generation F-35, as opposed to fourth-generation alternatives that might become outdated relatively soon.
Prague’s decision to purchase the F-35 is yet another victory for the US and Lockheed Martin, which recently won lucrative contracts from Canada, Finland, Switzerland, and Germany.
This comes as a third major jolt to SAAB in recent times. Earlier, Finland and Canada had chosen the American F-35 stealth fighters over the Gripens offered by Saab.
SAAB chief Micael Johansson had earlier said that the decision to opt for F-35 might have been based on political judgments. “Everything comes to politics sometimes – this is not only about having a great product.”