How can the Slovak Air Force, which is undergoing a heavy modernization with F-16Vs ordered from the US, face the dangerous situation directly on its borders?
Slovakia is one of the neighboring countries of already war-torn Ukraine; meanwhile, it’s also one of the nations located in the ‘eastern-wing’ of NATO. The small country, with an even smaller air force is now looking directly into one big issue – How can its Air Force, which is undergoing a heavy modernization with F-16Vs ordered from the US, face the dangerous situation directly on its borders? One option is for Czech Air Force and German anti-aircraft systems guarding its skies.
Slovakia has announced already in 2018 that its Air Force will be modernized by the purchase of 14 F-16 Block 70/72 jet fighters, with the first aircraft planned to be delivered in 2024. Even though the first pilots have already finished their training, it’s expected that there will be quite a time gap between the retirement of its current MiG-29ASs fleet and the introduction of the new F-16s. As Ukraine, a direct neighbor of Slovakia, is in ongoing open conflict with its future hard-to-be predicted, the small nation of Slovakia needs to find a way to protect its skies as soon as possible.
The Ukrainian war and sanctions against the Russian Federation means a lot for the Slovak Air Force. The Minister of Defense of Slovakia, Jaroslav Naď, has announced that the country will probably end the MiG-29 career in Slovak Air Force sooner than it was planned. It’s possible that the technicians from Russia, who were maintaining the aircraft, will be sent back to Russia as soon as possible. For this reason the Slovak Fulcrums will retire at least two years sooner than it was expected.
Even though there are several MiG-29AS (upgraded MiG-29A version to NATO standards) currently operating in the Slovak Air Force, several sources claim that the country’s air space was guarded only by a single lone pilot (as the rest of the pilots are ongoing training in the US) with only one MiG-29AS being in the active service. What’s more alarming is the fact that the aircraft’s only functional weapon is its gun, a GSh-30-1, as Slovakia is lacking air-to-air missiles (R-27 and R-73) used by the Fulcrum.
It’s possible that the time gap between the retirement of MiG-29s and the introduction of F-16s will be filled by one of the closest Slovaks allies – Czech Republic. Czech Republic is operating its fighter fleet consisting of JAS-39C/D Gripens. Several years ago, when Slovakia was looking for replacement of its fighter fleet, the option of establishing a common fighter between the Czech Republic and Slovakia was on the table – supported by the possibility of obtaining Gripens too. However, the nation chose the F-16s and the idea of a common Gripen-equipped squadron was abandoned.
However, the idea of Czech aircraft guarding Slovak air space is not dead. Czech Gripens have already been involved in several air-policing missions. As the two countries are both culturally and geographically close to each other, the idea of operational flights of Czech aircraft over Slovakia is not unrealistic. Even though the Czech side (through corporal Magdalena Dvorakova) has mentioned that the aircraft could operate over Slovakia from Čáslav air base – located around 200 km from the Slovak borders, is not impossible that the Czech aircraft could operate even from Mošnov air base (60 km from Slovak borders) or even directly from Slovakia – however, probably after the Sliač Air Base (the home base for Slovak Tactical Wing – using the fighter aircraft) will be modernized. The Sliač Air Base is expected to be modernized around the time F-16s will be introduced in the Slovak Air Force.
The ongoing war in Ukraine has brought to light another dangerous problem to Slovakia – the lack of anti-aircraft systems. The Slovak Air Force has in its inventory four batteries of 2K12 Kub SAMs (SA-6 Gainful) and one battery of S-300PMU (SA-10 Grumble). The systems are not fully-operational, only being used in training. Slovakia, its infrastructure and its air space, is therefore vulnerable to potential attacks – connected to war in Ukraine, the possibility of missile attack on Slovakia is high. Even though Russia will probably not attack NATO itself, the possibility of a potential malfunctioned missile hitting Slovak territory or breaking the nation’s airspace is high. The small nation may have found help from Germany for filling the empty nation’s defense problem.
The Minister of Defense of Germany, Christine Lambrecht, has announced that Germany will send one anti-aircraft company, equipped with MIM-104 Patriot systems, to Slovakia. The allocation of the system is part of NATO’s plan to strengthen its eastern wing defensive line which is very much needed in ongoing conflict on NATO’s eastern doorstep.
The potential cooperation between the Czech Air Force and the Slovak Air Force might be renewed in 2027 too – the time when the Czech Air Force will modernize its own air force. It’s possible that in that time the Slovaks will be the ones who will take care of Czech air space with F-16s in return. The German SAM systems in Slovakia could also serve in the country until the Slovak Air Force does modernize its anti-aircraft capabilities – with the exact date for this step to happen being unknown, as the country is already undergoing primary modernization of its ground forces.
The ongoing war in Ukraine has shown two things – how vulnerable are the Alliance’s air forces bordering Ukraine when taking into account Russian equipment. On the other hand, it has been shown how the Alliance and close geographical cooperation is vital for such air forces. As in the case of Slovakia – the Czech Air Force might serve as an important ally in securing its air space with its Gripens while Germany protects the nation’s territory against potential missile attack.