Exactly fourteen years ago, on April 18th, 2005, the very first six supersonic jet fighters from Sweden – JAS-39 Gripen – arrived to Čáslav air force base, therefore opening the Gripen era in the Czech Air Force.
When, in 1999, the Czech Republic together with Poland and Hungary joined NATO, the 41st Fighter Squadron (the predecessor of the 211th Tactical Squadron) was still operating the MiG-21MF fighters, manufactured in 1970s. The more modern MiG-29s were, after the separation of Czechoslovakia, sold to Poland in exchange for W-3A Sokół helicopters – most of the Czechoslovak MiG-29s were based in Slovakia and newly established Czech Air Force had no capabilities to maintain and service those aircraft.
It became obvious, that the Czech Air Force need to replace MiG-21s with much modern aircraft, capable to cooperate within the NATO structures and able to perform the air policy duties. After the long negotiations and several agreements signed between Czech and Swedish governments in 2004, the Czech Air Force received 14 JAS-39 Gripen fighters (12 single-seat C version and 2 two-seat D version) through the long-term financial lease.
The cost of the 10-year lease was approximately 20 billion CZK (850 million USD) for lease of the aircraft, support and service, with the additional 150 million CZK for the crew training in Sweden. After the 10-year term, Czech Republic could either buy out the Gripens or return them to Sweden.
The first received Gripens were somewhat several orders of magnitude modern that MiG-21s, however their capabilities were limited to the basic ones. Delivered with the basic software MS18.5 (also known as MS18 Block 5), the Gripens could use their cannons and AIM-9L Sidewinder short-range missiles, enough to fulfil the elementary tasks – join the NATINAMDS structures and replace MiG-21s role in the air defence. The use of leased Gripens was restricted in the agreement for approximately 150 flying hours per aircraft for one year (21,000 flying hours in total).
Certainly, the Czech Air Force wanted to extend the possibilities of the newly acquired jet fighter and the Gripens were subsequently modernized – the software was exchanged for MS18.7 version, together with additional upgraded systems, and the aircraft were re-armed to AIM-120 AMRAAM missiles.
Starting with their first air policy mission – Baltic Air Policing in 2009 – the Czech Air Force actively participate in many foreign missions and exercises, additionally organizing the live-fly trainings in the Czech Republic: Baltic and Icelandic Air Policing, Operation Unified Protector, Lion Effort, Sky Avenger and many more.
In 2015 the lease of JAS-39 Gripens was extended until 2027 (with an additional two-year extension option) for 19,6 billion CZK for the aircraft and 1,8 billion CZK for additional training and aircraft upgrades.
Today, the Czech Gripens are significantly way better aircrafts comparing the initial years. All fighters were upgraded to the latest MS20 standard – allowing the Gripen to engage ground targets using unguided and laser-guided bombs, the air-to-air capability was improved through new radar modes and the Israeli-made Rafael Litening III electro-optical targeting pod was implemented, Link 16 data link added and the night-vision googles. The following upgrade, for MS20 Block 2, is planned for 2020.
All the Czech Air Force JAS-39 Gripens are operated by the 211th Tactical Squadron based in Čáslav air force base. The 211th Squadron was in 2010 awarded the Full Membership in the ´NATO Tigers´ and is actively participating in the annual Tiger Meet exercises, usually with interesting special NTM aircraft livery.