Thursday, 15 September 2022

A New Chapter: Czechia Bids For Israeli UCAVs

By Stijn Mitzer and Joost Oliemans
The Czech Army is set to undergo a major transformation that will eventually see the replacement of most remaining Cold War-era equipment in favour of modern Western types. Planned to include military hardware such as the Leopard 2A7 MBT, CV90 MkIV IFVs, Caesar 8x8 SPGs, SPYDER-MR SAM systems, AH-1Z attack helicopters and even up to 24 F-35 stealth combat aircraft, the Czech Republic as a result will be in possession of a highly capable and well-equipped military. The latest reported acquisition of three Heron I U(C)AVs from Israel for the Czech Air Force would further expand on these already advanced capabilities. Of course, all this comes with a significant price tag.

Czechia's choice for the Israeli Heron is a notable deviation from neighbouring countries like Poland, Slovakia, Hungary and Romania. Poland ordered a total of 24 Bayraktar TB2s in May 2021, with the first deliveries expected at the end of this year. [1] Likewise, Romania is soon set to order 18 TB2s and Slovakia has also expressed its intent to acquire the TB2. [2] Hungary has trialled the Turkish Lentatek Karayel-SU in November 2021, but has since voiced its interest in an acquisition of the TB2 UCAV as well. [3] Germany on the other hand in 2022 decided to expand the capabilities of its Heron UAVs to now also include an armed role after years of refusing the use of armed drones. [4]

Though the Czech Air Force appears intent on arming its Herons just like Germany, the planned acquisition of just three UAVs is insufficient for sustained wartime operations. The proposed acquisition price of $110 million is also hard to justify for the capabilities just three drones can offer. [5] By comparison, Poland acquired 24 TB2s including control stations, armament and spare parts for $270 million in May 2021. [1] The export price of one TB2 is estimated at $5 million per drone. Assuming a package price of $10 million, one TB2 would still be over three and a half times cheaper than what the Czech Ministry of Defence (MoD) could end up paying for the Herons if the deal is to go ahead.
The Czech MoD revealed that it approached several manufacturers in a number of countries before deciding on Israel Aerospace Industries' (IAI) Heron I. [5] The type's COMINT and ELINT payloads could have played a pivotal role in this decision. Nonetheless, the Czech MoD added that any contract with Israel will only be concluded if IAI submits an offer that will also include the involvement of the Czech defense industry in the amount of at least 30% of the contract. [5] How IAI will attempt to achieve this is unknown, as involving Czechia's local defence industry in the production of just three drones to the amount of 30% is ultimately a somewhat ludicrous proposition.
Czechia currently operates the smaller RQ-11B Raven, RQ-12 Wasp AE and Boeing Insitu ScanEagle reconnaissance UAVs acquired from the United States. The Czech Army deployed both the RQ-11B and ScanEagle to Afghanistan as part of its commitment to the NATO-led multinational mission in Afghanistan. It is not unthinkable that Czechia envisages a similar future use for the Heron rather than strengthening Czechia's homeland defence. Indeed, the Czech Army revealed that ''the selected system [Heron] most closely corresponds to the expected use within the army and meets future requirements for full-scale use, both on the territory of the Czech Republic as part of training, and for possible use as part of supporting units in foreign operations.'' [6]

While the acquisition of three Heron systems from Israel could herald a new chapter in Czech unmanned vehicle operations, this chapter would certainly end up being written at a very expensive per-word price given the total price tag of $110 million. With its neighbouring countries increasingly moving to purchase larger numbers of smaller but operationally similar UCAVs, it could be argued that through a similar acquisition goals such as involvement of Czechia's local defence industry can be more realistically attained while still enabling the desired degree of NATO integration. Whether the Israeli deal is successfully concluded or not, there is no doubt that Czechia's military will leave this decade an entirely different beast than it went into it.

[3] Brutálisan ütőképes Bayraktar harci drónok beszerzését fontolgatja a kormány
[6] Czech Republic to Purchase Three Heron Drones From Israel