Acquisition of F-16 fighters for the Slovak Army: The first pilots are already training in the USA
The purchase of new F-16 Block 70/72 fighters for the Slovak Air Force is one of the largest modernization projects of the Slovak Army. The contract for their purchase was signed at the end of 2018 by the previous leadership of the Ministry of Defense, headed by former Minister of Defense Petr Gajdoš. While the first pieces of new F-16 fighters are to be received by Slovakia in 2023, already during this year, pilots of the Slovak Air Force are preparing to pilot these aircraft in the United States.
A brief history of the purchase of fighters
The purchase of new fighters as a replacement for obsolete MiG-29 aircraft is one of the acquisition priorities, which are listed in the White Paper on Defense of the Slovak Republic in 2016. Currently, the Slovak Army uses MiG-29 fighters, specifically these are used by Otto Smik Tactical Wing pilots, which is located in Sliač. But not all MiGs are operational. The story of the replacement of MiG-29 fighters began to be written in 2013, when the then leadership of the Ministry of Defense of the Slovak Republic, led by Martin Glváč, decided to embark on the path of leasing Swedish-made JAS-39 Gripen aircraft from SAAB. This type of aircraft is leased by the Czech Republic and Hungary. At the end of 2015, the then Minister of Defense Martin Glváč informed the public that everything was ready for the signing of the agreement with the Swedish side. However, as the parliamentary elections approached, the then Minister of Defense Glváč decided to leave the decision to lease JAS-39 Gripen aircraft to the new Government. After Peter Gajdoš took over as head of the Ministry of Defense in 2016, according to media reports, there were problems with renting these aircraft.
According to the then leadership of the Ministry of Defense, the problems were allegedly related to the fact that former Secretary of the Ministry of Defense Service Ján Hoľko informed that the Swedish side is not considering leasing JAS-39 Gripen fighters because international agreements do not allow it. This procedure of the then Ministry of Defense started a wave of criticism. Among the critics of the procedure of the Ministry of Defense of the Slovak Republic was the current Minister of Defense Jaroslav Naď, who at the time claimed that there was no problem with international agreements and treaties. The Swedish side did not see a problem with international agreements and treaties either. According to the available information, the failure of SAAB and its Gripen was also due to the fact that the Swedish side abandoned the original intention to lease Gripens to Slovakia and wanted Slovakia to buy the aircraft. For these reasons, Slovakia began to look for other offers, including the possibility of purchasing American F-16 aircraft.
At the end of 2017, the United States Embassy in Slovakia confirmed the ongoing negotiations on the possible delivery of F-16 – V Block 70/72 aircraft to the Slovak Army. This is the latest version of the F-16 fighter, which is used in many countries around the world. In the summer of 2018, Slovakia joined the club of future users of F-16 fighters. The green purchase of 14 F-16 Block 70/72 aircraft was given by the State Security Council and the Government of the Slovak Republic in July 2018, when it adopted this decision on the basis of a recommendation from the Ministry of Defense. At a press conference after the Government meeting, the then Prime Minister Peter Pellegrini stated that Slovakia would pay 1.589 billion euros for 14 F-16 Block 70/72 fighters. In addition to the aircraft themselves, the award includes the training of 22 pilots and 160 members of the military personnel, ammunition and logistics. Peter Pellegrini also added that this was the most economically advantageous and technically best offer.
The US offer is eight percent lower than the Swedish JAS-39 C / D Gripen offer in terms of the cost of more than 30 years of aircraft life. The ceremonial signing of the contract with the US Government took place on 12 December 2018. However, until 2020, the contract was classified and only under the current Minister of Defense Jaroslav Naď it was declassified after he became Minister of Defense in 2020. Naď himself stated in connection with the declassification of the contract that the price for F-16 Block 70/72 aircraft will exceed the price of 1.589 billion euros. Slovakia should receive 14 new fighters by the end of 2024, while the first seven should be delivered in 2023. The purchase of new aircraft is also related to the modernization of the Sliač air base.
The first pilots are already training in the USA
As already mentioned, the acquisition of 14 new F-16 Block 70/72 aircraft also includes the training of 22 pilots. This training started already this year. According to the spokeswoman of the Ministry of Defense, Martina Kovaľ Kakaščíková, 6 pilots of the Slovak Air Force are currently being trained in the USA, and another four will join them during this year.
Slovak pilots in the USA first complete training on T-38 training aircraft and after successfully completing this part of the training, they will move to the F-16. The training of technical and support personnel, which is also part of the contract, is scheduled according to the Department of Defense's schedule for 2022. On April 29, the Department of Defense released a press release that the first four pilots already had the opportunity to fly the F-16 aircraft themselves at a US military base in the state of Arizona.
The first Slovak pilot to sit in the cockpit of an F-16 fighter was Lieutenant Lukáš Kúdela. The first pilots should complete training in America in 2023, the same year that Slovakia is to receive the first seven F-16 fighters. The last pilots selected to pilot F-16 aircraft should complete training in 2028. Before pilots can train in the United States, they need to complete training at Sliač Air Base, where an L-39 tactical trainer aircraft is used for training.