Hungarian Air Force becomes the strongest in the region during the course of a few years

English2020. dec. 6.Növekedé

With the acquisitions of recent years, the Hungarian Air Force has undergone considerable development; it has become one of the strongest in the region and is fully NATO compatible. We will soon have to decide whether to keep the Gripen fighters we acquired in the 2000s or switch to a new model.

In Hungary, the second part of the Zrínyi 2026 military development and weapons procurement program concerning the purchase of military transport aircraft has been completed recently.

The third and final phase, the multi-purpose rear-ramp cargo aircraft procurement project has begun. On November 17, a contract was signed in Budapest for the purchase of two Brazilian-made KC-390 new generation Millennium aircraft.

With the JAS 39 Gripens and recent aircraft purchases (attack and multi-purpose helicopters, military passenger and cargo aircraft), Hungary's air force has developed to become one of the strongest in the region.

If we look at the Visegrád 4 countries and consider all components, the Hungarian Air Force may be in the forefront.

First of all, with the two newly purchased KC-390s, which are the most heavy-duty ramp aircraft (suitable for transporting military vehicles and executing parachute jumps) among the ones used by V4 countries, and with the 36 H145M / H225M Airbus helicopters we can rank first.

Gáspár Maróth, government commissioner leading the Defence Procurement Agency emphasized after the conclusion of the contract on the KC-390s: the purchase of the two aircraft will complete the development of the air transport, rapid evacuation, airborne and air refuelling capabilities of the military.

 We are acquiring a versatile fleet for the armed forces, with which they can solve the widest range of tasks nationally, in a sovereign way.

This also means that the next step in the military acquisition and modernization project will presumably be the decision on the further fate of the currently used multifunctional fighters, the JAS 39 Gripens, acquired in the early 2000s.

The lease agreement with Sweden for the 14 Gripen aircraft of the Hungarian Defence Forces (MH) expires in 2026. Then we will have to decide whether to keep these machines and settle the residual value (with which they will become property of Hungary) or whether we will acquire other types of machines.

MH's rotorcraft fleet has also been modernized; Soviet-Russian helicopters have been phased out, and we have bought 20 H145M light multi-purpose helicopters and 16 H225 medium multi-purpose helicopters from Airbus Defence.

New Airbus H145M helicopters of the Hungarian Defence Forces at an air show in Budaörs (MTI Photo: Zsolt Szigetváry)

Delivery of the H145M machines has already started. These two machine types will replace the Russian Mi-17 and Mi-24 helicopters.

Therefore, with the JAS 39 and H145 / 225M aircraft, the Hungarian Air Force will become NATO compatible; and since all these machines are manufactured by a single company, Airbus Defence, they will become more economical to operate.

This includes on-board weapons systems, ammunition, telecommunications equipment and IFF identification systems as well. An important aspect is that the servicing of the machines is ensured from Western (Swedish and German) as well as domestic resources.

Although it is not a typically EU-compatible solution, some of the sales contracts also include the possibility of creating component production and service capacities in Hungary.

Opinions differ whether this means offset transactions, which were strongly disapproved in the past by the EU and has also been opposed in recent years, or independent (but machinery and manufacturer related) procurement. However, today it is not as important as it was some ten years ago.

At that time, offset transactions were interpreted in Brussels as a breach of EU competition rules. For example, when a buyer purchased military equipment, they stipulated that the seller, in addition to delivering the product itself, should make investments and establish factories, production and service capacities in the buyer's country, which would help to create jobs, transfer new technologies, or, in exchange, purchase products manufactured there. The “accompanying” investments made by the seller in the buyer’s country also offered small and medium-sized companies in the buyer's country supplier opportunities.

Regarding the latest purchase of the two KC-390 Brazilian transport aircraft, the sales contract was signed by Commander of the Hungarian Armed Forces Lieutenant General Ferenc Korom representing Hungary and Jackson Medeiros De Farias Schneider, President of the Brazilian Embraer Defense and Security Company representing the Brazilian manufacturer.

Delivery of the two machines will begin in 2023.

The contract amount has not been disclosed, but one aircraft could cost approximately 50-60 million dollars (15.2-18.3 billion forints).

The agreement also includes the training of flight and ground personnel, technicians, and the provision of the necessary equipment.

In such transactions, however, which include not only the delivery of the machine, but also some additional services, the price may differ from the data published in the media.

The special feature of the two aircraft is that they will be equipped with an “intensive care unit” (ICU) to enable the transport of serious patients, which will be of great help in carrying out humanitarian missions. With this, Hungary is the second NATO member state after Portugal to buy such modern machines (the first KC-390 took off five years ago).

These machines are suitable for refuelling JAS 39 aircraft with two refuelling devices that can be released from the wings, or they can take fuel from other aircraft in mid-air.

The ramp in the rear of the fuselage allows for the simultaneous transport of lighter military vehicles, even a BTR-80A and a medium-sized military truck.

On the other hand, the recently acquired German armoured vehicles, including the 44-tonne Lynx armoured combat vehicles or the even heavier Leopard2 A7 + tanks that weigh more than 60 tonnes are too heavy to be transported in it.

Only machines three to four times more expensive than the KC-390s, such as the C-17s, for example, are suitable for transporting these heavy machines.

Up to fifty hours of flight time per year we can use the C-17 Globemaster III, registered in Hungary but owned by NATO, which can carry a Lynx or Leopard2 A7 + tank if needed.

It is not up to the leaders responsible for the modernization of the Hungarian army, but so far the V4 countries (Hungary, Slovakia, the Czech Republic and Poland) have not been able to achieve the goal set decades ago in the years after the change of regime, i.e. to harmonize purchases in order to make the procurement of weapons systems more economical.

The countries have not been successful in establishing common capacities for servicing and repairing new western weapons systems either.

The situation is the same regarding the use of uniform weapon types.

It is a common NATO disease (from which the Russian Federation benefits, as a probable adversary of NATO) that many different types of fighter jets, transport aircraft, armoured and infantry weapons are in use.

In combat situations this can cause confusion and replenishment or service difficulties.

If we compare the air force of our regional neighbours, the V4 countries, Hungary is in the first or second place.

With the procurement of the two KC-390 aircraft, among the V4 countries only Hungary will have suitable vehicles to transport heavy weapons or a large number of soldiers.

Although Poland has more C-295M transport aircraft (Czechia bought the same type, but significantly fewer pieces), these are only able to carry one third of the weight that the KC-390s can.

The situation is similar with Slovakia’s two C-27J machines, which have a rear ramp but they can only carry less than half the weight carried by the KC-390. There are similar differences in the other categories as well.

In the fighter jet category, Czechia and Hungary have JAS 39 Gripens, while Slovakia and Poland possess American F-16s.

Helicopter fleets are not uniform either.

The EU versus US market competition and political-economic conflicts of interest prevail there too.

Poland preferred Sikorsky-70 (a variant of the UH-60 Black Hawk), partly manufactured in Poland but designed in the United States, although they had previously considered purchasing H225M aircraft manufactured by the EU-based Airbus Defence.

Czechia’s helicopter fleet is quite varied, with a mix of eastern and western products, which can lead to problems related to servicing and spare parts.

They still have a significant number of Soviet-Russian MI-8/17/24 helicopters in operation, as well as Polish-developed and manufactured aircraft (W3 A). They recently ordered 12 UH-1Y and AH-1Z helicopters which are the upgraded versions of the legendary “Huey” helicopters, the symbol of the Vietnam War. Slovakia’s helicopter fleet today consists of nine UH-60 Black Hawks.

Finally, a sensitive and controversial topic in Hungary:

part of the transport capacity of the Hungarian Air Force is used to carry government members and high-ranking personalities (VIPs). This is a common practice not only in our region, but worldwide.

In Czechia two Airbus A319s and a Canadian-made Challenger 600 business jet, as well as two Yak-40s to be withdrawn this year, belong to the military but are also used for VIP purposes as a government aircraft.

In Slovakia, an ACJ319 military transport aircraft belonging to the Air Force operates as a government aircraft. In Poland, three Boeing 737 and two Gulfstream G550 business jets registered in the Air Force are also used to carry government officials. In Hungary, two A319s and two Dassault Falcon 7X business jets perform this dual role.

In Germany, a similar type of aircraft, the A319 is used for military passenger transport and also for transporting government delegations. (Previously, some of the Hungarian troops serving in Afghanistan were transported in A319 aircraft belonging to the Luftwaffe).

In addition, Germany keeps three A321Neos (ordered), two A340s and one A350, as well as four Canadian-made Bombardier Global Express business jets belonging to the military but used for VIP passenger transport.