Since the end of the Cold War, the Czech Republic started rebuilding it’s air force, even though existing threat perceptions had disappeared. Colonel Mikulenka tells StratPost, “At the end of the Cold War, it took us a long time to start thinking of rebuilding our air force. We canceled many plans for new bases at the end of the Cold War. Our government was focused on the budget. Naturally, since we are a small country we have limitations. But we started thinking in terms of expanding. Although the threats to my country had disappeared, we were now a part of NATO with new responsibilities and different types of threats had surfaced, especially after the terrorist attacks of 2001 in the United States.”
The Czech Air Force decided on the Gripen fighter and according to Mikulenka, has had no occasion to regret that decision. “So we decided we needed a whole new air force with new technologies. In 2003 we floated a tender for new aircraft, with very stringent criteria and a demanding timeline. We had experts in every field examining the offers. And finally Gripen won the tender. In 2004 we signed the agreement and we got delivery of the first aircraft in ten months. One year from the date of signing the agreement, we had two Gripen aircraft that were fully operational for NATO QRA duties. And we did all this with Gripen’s after sales support without any major problems. Our pilots have 7,000 flying hours. I think the numbers are pretty good, with around 150 hours per pilot. We now have 14 aircraft.”
Mikulenka also thinks there has been a perceptible change in the Russian defense industry’s ability to provide logistical support. “During the Cold War, we had pretty good logistics support from the Russian defense industry for our aircraft. But after the end of the Cold War, we started starving for spares, even though we kept our Mig 21s to minimum upgrades. It is very difficult to upgrade second generation aircraft – the shape of the aircraft is still an old design and beyond a point, one can’t do much with it,” he says.
The Czech decision was based not just on the suitability of the existing aircraft but also the future upgrade capabilities. Mikulenka says, “We picked the Gripen, because weren’t just thinking of the short-term future. It is an excellent aircraft with great potential for growth in terms of upgrades. It is capable of being upgraded till the year 2040. Throughout its service, the Mig 21 had malfunctions. Gripen simply has a self-testing system. The pilot is not forced to think about what to do when operating the aircraft. The aircraft shows you what to do and there are multiple redundancies built into its systems.”