A major fleet modernisation is under way in the Slovak Air Force, with new fighters, tactical transport aircraft and multirole helicopters. Krassimir Grozev and Alexander Mladenov report
MILITARY SLOVAK AIR FORCE
Slovakia is among the smallest NATO member countries to maintain its own air arm. It has adopted a pragmatic approach to squeezing out the maximum of its existing Russianmade platforms before beginning their replacement with Western aircraft, a process launched in 2014. This carefully planned replacement drive includes the procurement of new combat and transport aircraft and new assault transport helicopters which needs to take place at the right time and in the right numbers.
Force and missions
The Vzdušné Sily Ozbrojených Síl Slovenskej Republiky (VzS or Slovak Air Force) is a small force, with 3,200 personnel and 36 aircraft. Headquartered in Zvolen, the VzS’s organisational structure includes three air wings and one air defence brigade. The VzS’s Commander-in-Chief is Major General Miroslav Korba, a seasoned helicopter pilot.
The tactical air wing stationed at Sliač Air Base in the central part of Slovakia has two component squadrons. The first is equipped with upgraded MiG-29AS and MiG-29UBS fighters and the second flies upgraded L-39CM and L-39ZAM jet trainers.
The helicopter wing, stationed at Prešov in the eastern part of the country, has two squadrons equipped with upgraded Mi-17s – the first of which is tasked with tactical transport and attack missions while the second is tasked with search and rescue (SAR).
The transport wing, stationed at Malacky-Kuchyna in western Slovakia, not far from the capital Bratislava, is currently equipped with a handful of L-410 Turbolet light transport aircraft and is slated to soon receive a pair of Leonardo C-27J Spartan tactical transports.
The air defence brigade, with its headquarters in Nitra, has two component units (divisions or groups) – one of these equipped with the S-300PMU (SA-10 Grumble) long-range surface-to-air (SAM) system, and the other with the 2K212 Kub (SA-6 Gainful) SAM.
The VzS has four main missions. The first is to maintain sovereignty of Slovak airspace in peacetime, within the NATO Integrated Air and Missile Defence System (NATINAMDS), and the air defence of the country in times of war. The second mission is maintaining readiness for SAR operations on Slovak territory. The third is participation in missions outside Slovakterritory in accordance with the country’s international commitments. The fourth one involves transport of personnel and equipment inside and outside the country.
Slovakia’s fighters are upgraded MiG-29s. Back in the early 2000s, the VzS operated a fleet of 23 MiG-29s in a single squadron at Sliač, although serviceability at the time was poor owing to a lack of spare parts and the urgent need for overhauls. In addition to the ten Fulcrums inherited after the break-up of Czechoslovakia on January 1, 1993, a further 14 brand-new aircraft, including a pair of two-seaters, were delivered in 1994 and 1995 as compensation for writing off Russia’s trade debt.
In November 2004, Slovakia signed an ambitious and costly communication, navigation and identification (CNI) avionics upgrade, overhaul and service life extension programme (SLEP) contract with the MiG- 29’s original equipment manufacturer (OEM), RSK MiG. It covered the Westernisation and life-extension of 12 MiG-29s, including two MiG-29UB two-seaters. The SLEP extended the Fulcrum’s airframe life to 40 years or 4,000 flight hours, whichever is reached first, making the fleet good to continue in service until the late 2020s. The work on this project was undertaken by the Slovak maintenance, repair and overhaul (MRO) company LOTN in Trenčín.
Total cost of the CNI upgrade and SLEP amounted to $69 million, of which $50 million was offset against Russian trade debt owed to Slovakia from the time of the former Czechoslovakia.
The $50 million is reported to have covered all the structural work needed for the life extension in addition to delivery of the Russian-made avionics components used in the upgrade. The Slovak defence budget covered the remaining $19 million which was used for the purchase and integration of Western-supplied CNI avionics systems. Upgraded single-seaters received the new local designation MiG-29AS while the twoseat Fulcrums were re-designated as MiG- 29UBS (the letter S denoting Slovakia).
Upgrade development work was undertaken by a team of Russian and Western contractors, with a firewall separating them to prevent leakage of sensitive data on the Western avionics to Russian partners. The Russian portion of the work was undertaken by RSK MiG as the main contractor, while avionics integrator Russkaya Avionika was the sub-contractor. During the project’s development phase, the Russian companies were denied access to all sensitive NATO CNI avionics used in the upgrade, including the identification friend or foe (IFF) system and secure communications kit.
The upgraded MiG-29AS single-seaters received the BAE Systems APX-113 interrogator/transponder IFF, while the two-seaters received the APX-117 IFF. The APX-113 was fully integrated with the MiG- 29’s N019 radar, which allowed both Russian and Western-made electronic systems to work together and made possible the reliable detection and identification of targets using the MiG-29’s original NO19 radar set.
The new Western-supplied communication systems integrated onto the MiG-29AS and MiG-29UBS included the Rockwell Collins ARC-210 Talon UHF/ VHF encrypted radio, Rockwell Collins Miniature Airborne GPS Receiver (MAGR), ARN-147 VOR/instrument landing system (ILS) and ARN-153(V) tactical air navigation system (TACAN). The newly added Western avionics systems were integrated via MILSTD- 1553 primary and ARINC 429 back-up data buses. An ELT 503 emergency locator transmitter was also installed.
The upgrade additionally involved some Russian-made avionics items such as the BTsVM MVK-03 mission computer, MFI-54 multi-functional colour cockpit display, PUS- 29 system control panel, VK-1 gun camera and VR-1 digital video recorder. The existing cockpit clockwork and vertical tape flight/ navigation and system indication instruments, originally using metric units, were recalibrated in imperial measurement units.
The first upgraded Fulcrum flew in December 2005 and the entire fleet was completed in February 2008. MiG-29AS were placed on quick reaction alert (QRA) duty during mid-2006, while the field trials were completed in December 2007.
A long-term power-by-the-hour support agreement with RSK MiG followed the upgrade, granting an availability rate of no less than 80%. In 2013, the Slovak press reported that the MiG-29 fleet availability had slumped to just 30%. In September that year the Slovak Defence Minister, Martin Glváč, confirmed this and claimed the Russian contractor had failed to perform its contractual obligations. Consequently, some VzS MiG-29s have been cannibalised for spares to maintain a small number of airworthy aircraft for the QRA duty and provide annual pilot training requirements.
SLOVAK AIR FORCE HISTORY
The former state of Czechoslovakia split into two independent states – the Czech Republic and Slovakia – on January 1, 1993. This was a peaceful split in which all state assets of the former Czechoslovakia were divided in a 2:1 ratio between the Czech Republic and Slovakia.
The same approach was adopted for the division of the fleet of the former Czechoslovak Air Force, with two exceptions. Both newly-established countries agreed the MiG-23 fleet be retained in full by the Czech Republic while the MiG-29 fleet was divided 50:50. As a result, the newly-created Slovak air arm inherited a fleet of 229 aircraft, including nine MiG-29 single seaters and one MiG-29UB two seater, 13 MiG-21Ms, 36 MiG-21MFs, eight MiG-21Rs, two MiG-21US, 11 MiG-21UMs, 18 Su-22M4s, three Su-22UM3Ks, 12 Su-25Ks, one Su-25UBK, 16 L-29s, 21 L-39s, 17 Mi-2s, nine Mi-8s, 17 Mi-17s, eight Mi-24Ds, ten Mi-24Vs, one Mi- 24DU, nine L-410s, two An-24Vs, two An-26s, one An-12BP and one Tu-145B-2.
In the early 2000s, the VzS commenced a wide-ranging reduction of its fleet, withdrawing from use all its obsolete and hard-to-support combat, transport and training types. The Su-22 fleet was phased-out in 2001 followed by the Su-25s and L-29s in 2002 and the MiG-21 in 2003.
1 The upgrades on the MiG-29 fleet had no real impact on the aircraft’s overall combat capabilities as the Fulcrum’s original 1980s-era sensors and weapons remained unchanged. 2 The Slovak Air Force has a fighter force of 12 Fulcrums, including ten single-seaters and two two-seaters, tentatively slated to remain in service until the end of decade. 3 All 12 Slovak Fulcrums were upgraded and overhauled by February 2008. The modernisation featured both Russian and Western equipment. Alexander Mladenov
Currently, the VzS keeps 12 upgraded MiG- 29s in operation and has in long-term storage two more non-upgraded single-seaters and one two-seater, to be used as attrition reserves as necessary. Three of the original 24 Fulcrums were lost in various accidents, while six more were handed over to various museums in Slovakia and abroad.
In 2015, the Slovak MiG-29 fleet logged 1,005 hours and 45 minutes in 977 sorties – the data for 2016 is believed to be close to these figures. The 16 to 18 Slovak Fulcrum pilots qualified for the QRA duty fly an average of 60 to 70 hours a year. This flight time, despite being far from the NATO requirements, is deemed enough for keeping currency for the air defence mission. At the same time, Slovak MiG-29 pilots keep their flight hours up by additionally flying L-39 jet trainers, and therefore their total flying time per year is between 100 and 120 hours.
Mi-17 soldiers on
In the early 1990s, the Slovak Air Force inherited a good many helicopter types, but by 2013 it operated just a single type, the Mi-17 Hip-H. The Mi-24V Hind-E attack helicopters were retired from service in September 2011 and during the same year, the air arm retired its Mi-8PS used for VIP flying. The last Mi-2 Hoplites, used for training, were withdrawn from use in 2013.
The Mi-17 now serves in an upgraded form under two separate standards. The first of these is known as the Mi-17M (M denoting Moder, or upgraded), introduced in the early 2000s. It was initially intended for the Mi-17’s operation in international missions and all upgrade work was undertaken at LOTN in Trenčín.
M-standard upgrade for the Hip-H includes several newly added navigation aids – ILS, VOR and distance measuring equipment – in addition to new communication and identification avionics supplied by Rockwell Collins and BAE Systems such as the ARC- 210 military-standard UHF/VHF radios and APX-117 transponder respectively.
The upgraded Mi-17 also received main rotor mast dampers for reducing vibration levels and armour protection for the cockpit, in addition to anti-ballistic protection for the cargo cabin against small arms fire and highspeed missile warhead fragments.
The Mi-17s, originally delivered in the second half of the 1980s without any self-protection aids, received during the upgrade to the M-standard ASO-2V chaff/ flare dispensers and SPO-15 radar warning receivers.
SLOVAK AIR FORCE ORDER OF BATTLE
In addition to the transport missions, Slovak pilots flying the Mi-17M also train in the ground attack role. The upgraded Hip-H can carry up to six 32-round 57mm rocket packs, UPK-23-250 gun pods with 23mm guns and free-fall bombs carried on outrigger pylons.
1 The Mi-17 MODER is an armed assault helicopter used in the close air support role thanks to its capability of using up to six 32-round 57mm rocket packs and UPK-23-250 gun pods.
2 The seven-strong L-410 fleet is set to be complemented by a pair of Leonardo C-27J Spartan tactical transports.
3 Nine Mi-17s will continue in service until at least 2020 – the fleet consists of five Mi-17Ms and four Mi-17LPZS.
Between 2006 and 2007, the VzS undertook another, more ambitious programme upgrading four Mi-17s for in-country SAR missions with new avionics supplied by Rockwell Collins and Elbit Systems. The modernised helicopters, designated as the Mi-17LPZS (Letecke a Pozarni Zachranne Sluzby) feature avionics for round-the-clock/all-weather SAR operations, including new displays for flight/navigation, digital maps, new mission equipment for the rescue role and night vision googles (NVG) adaptation of the interior and exterior lights.
The Mi-17LPZS also received a new weather radar and its search sensor is the Elbit Systems COMPASS IV payload (using an infrared imager and CCD TV camera); the search scene image is displayed in the cockpit and on the display of the dedicated operator’s console in the cabin. The helicopter is also equipped with a Spectrolab SX-16 Nightsun searchlight. All upgrade work was undertaken at LOTN in Trenčín. The SAR helicopters, wearing highvisibility yellow strips on the fuselage and the tail boom, are also used for firefighting with Bambi bucket equipment.
The Slovak helicopter force has accumulated significant international experience, with its Mi-17Ms deployed in Bosnia in 2002 and 2003, then in Kosovo between 2007 and 2008, and then once again in Bosnia in 2009.
Currently, the VzS has a fleet of five Mi- 17Ms and four Mi-17LPZS in active service, which logged 922 hours and 50 minutes in 1,654 sorties in 2015. The operation of the Mi-17 fleet in Slovak service will continue until the service life of the last examples expires in the late 2010s.
Black Hawks for Slovakia
In 2013, the Slovak Ministry of Defence published its White Paper on the future defence of Slovakia. There were no intentions for extending the Mi-17’s service life beyond 35 years so the type was slated for replacement in the late 2010s. A sole-source procurement was selected by the Slovak Ministry of Defence, which called for the Sikorsky UH-60M Black Hawk to replace the upgraded Mi-17 in both assault transport and SAR versions. The decision to procure the Black Hawk in the same configuration as that delivered to the US Army was taken in early 2015, and the contract, under the Foreign Military Sales (FMS) programme was signed in April 2015.
Nine Sikorsky UH-60M Black Hawk helicopters were requested to be in the standard US Government configuration. The package included 20 General Electric T700-GE-701D engines (18 installed and two spares) in addition to 20 embedded global positioning systems/inertial navigation systems; two mission planning systems; 11 APX-123 IFF transponders; 20 ARC-231 and 11 ARC-201D radios; 11 ARN-147 VOR/ILS navigation and instrument landing systems and 11 ARN-153 TACAN navigation systems. The estimated cost of the nine UH-60Ms and the corresponding logistics package is up to $450 million.
On September 3, 2016 Sikorsky Aircraft was awarded $46 million from the Pentagon to produce the first batch of four UH-60Ms for Slovakia. Under the FMS contract awarded to Sikorsky, all work on these helicopters was slated for completion by the end of May 2017. The first two Slovak UH-60Ms were handed over at Prešov on August 3.
The Slovak Black Hawks replacing the Mi-17Ms will perform border patrol, rapid reaction and field-expedient firefighting capability for the national air and ground forces in counterterrorism, border security and humanitarian operations. The last examples of the nine-aircraft order are expected to be handed over in late 2019 while the contract payments will continue until 2024.
The Slovak air arm’s transport fleet was not a priority for renewal until the crash of an Antonov An-24 turboprop in Hungary, only 1.5 nautical miles (3km) from the Slovak border, on January 19, 2006. The crash happened during a landing approach to Košice when the aircraft was transporting Slovak troops who had just completed their peacekeeping mission in Kosovo. Forty-two were killed; there was only one survivor.
This crash prompted the launch of a process for the procurement of a newgeneration tactical transport for the VzS, with the Alenia Aeronautica (now Leonardo) C-27J Spartan and the EADS (now Airbus) C295M competing head-to-head to get the order. In December 2008, the C-27J was declared the winner in the competition. Due to a lack of money in the Slovak defence budget at the time, the contract signature was long delayed. The contract, covering delivery of two C-27Js plus an option for another one, was finally inked in October 2014. Valued at €69 million, it originally called for deliveries to be made in 2016 and 2017. The first Slovak C-27J made its maiden flight from Leonardo’s facility at Turin-Casell on August 7.
While waiting for the C-27J, the Slovak air arm’s transport force relies on a fleet of six L-410UVP-Es light turboprops in addition to one L-410FG modified for photo survey work for its transport needs. The seven-strong L-410 fleet amassed 1,358 hours and 50 minutes in 2,264 sorties during 2015.
1 The first Sikorsky UH-60M Black Hawk for the Slovak Air Force on the production line. US Embassy in Slovakia 2 High-visibility markings denote the four upgraded Mi-17LPZS Hips tailored for peacetime SAR operations. Miroslav Gyűrösi 3 Slovakia’s jet trainer is the L-39ZA, but the type also has a secondary ground attack capability.
One of the two An-26s remaining in VzS service was grounded in 2010. The other soldiered on until March 2016 – in its last full calendar year of operations in 2015, this aircraft logged 298 hours and 40 minutes in 371 sorties.
The VzS training fleet is grouped in the 2nd Squadron of the Tactical Air Wing at Sliač, equipped with Aero L-39 jet trainers. It provides basic and advanced training for pilots destined to convert to the MiG- 29 or remain serving as L-39 instructors. The squadron is equipped with eight L-39s – four of these are L-39Cs and the other four are L-39ZAs with enhanced weapons capabilities. All these aircraft underwent a CNI avionics upgrade by LOTN at Trenčín in the 2000s, receiving the new designations L-39CM and L-39ZAM. There are no replacement plans yet for these affordable aircraft, which are well supported by LOTN which cooperates with the OEM, Czech company Aero Vodochody.
New Slovak pilots trained to fly fighters initially receive their theoretical training at the Technical University in Kosice. During the last year of their training they log 45 flight hours flying prop trainers in a civilian air training school. This phase provides the students with a private pilot licence. After undergoing medical checks and an exam to evaluate their ability to serve with the military, eligible candidates attend officer training school and continue their flight training in a private flight training school. Student pilots streamed for fixed-wing aircraft fly Diamond DA20 prop trainers and those for rotary-wing Schweizer 269C piston-engine helicopters. The pilots log 120 flight hours during this phase, following a syllabus approved by the VzS.
After completing the flight training in the private school, the fixed-wing students are then streamed to their respective training courses. The prospective helicopter pilots convert to the Mi-17. Those destined for the transport aviation branch continue their training on the L-410 turboprop, while the prospective jet pilots are trained on the L-39CM.
The L-39CM and L-39ZAM is used not only for the advanced training portion of the fast jet course, but also for the lead-in phase during which the students sharpen their air-to-air and air-to-surface combat employment skills. Between one and three new pilots destined to fly jets enter the course each year. The L-39 course is 240 flight hours and upon its completion, a proportion of the students are assigned as L-39 instructors while the others continue with a MiG-29 conversion-to-type course. Typically pilots commencing MiG-29 training are no more than 27 years old with 400 flight hours of total time under their belts.
Gripen on the horizon
The well-publicised difficulties in maintaining the airworthiness of the upgraded MiG-29s and the rising costs of their support prompted Slovakia to initiate a search for alternative solutions, as outlined in the 2013 white paper. In early 2014, the country’s government began talks with various potential suppliers, forwarding to them requests for information. The only company to provide a response was Sweden’s Saab, offering the JAS 39 Gripen C and D fighters.
The Slovak Government’s down-selection of the Gripen in July 2014 was a logical outcome. The aircraft would be taken on lease under a scheme replicating that of the Czech Republic. In August 2014, Slovakia signed a letter of intent with the Czech Republic and Sweden for cooperation in use of the Gripen.
Direct negotiations between the Slovak Ministry of Defence, Sweden’s FMV defence export agency and Saab, for the lease of an as-yet undisclosed number of aircraft, opened in mid-March 2015. The VzS requires 1,000 to 1,200 flight hours per year, which could be provided by a fleet of eight to ten Gripens, whose lease and direct operating costs would be comparable to the costs of the MiG-29 fleet over the same number of flight hours.
Negotiations have been protracted, with the lease and price details being the main disputed subjects. The new government in Slovakia which entered office in mid- 2016 has re-confirmed the Gripen decision and the negotiations with FMV continued. In September 2016, the newly appointed defence minister, Peter Gajdoš, claimed that he had a mandate not only to negotiate the Gripen lease, but also to talk about purchase options. He added there is, in principle, an option for negotiations with other potential suppliers of fighter aircraft, but the Gripen is the first and so far the only choice for Slovakia. Contract signature is expected in the second half of 2017 at the earliest, which would allow first deliveries in late 2018 or more realistically in 2019.