The U.S. government will donate two Bell UH-1Y Venom and six AH-1Z Viper helicopters to the Czech Republic, drawn from the Excess Defense Articles inventory. The aircraft will be delivered free of charge, although Prague will have to pay for upgrade and transportation.
In August 2019 the Czech defense ministry announced that it had selected the UH-1Y/AH-1Z to begin the transformation of its helicopter force from one reliant on Soviet-era machines such as the Mil Mi-171 and Mi-24/35. An order was subsequently placed in September 2020 for eight Venoms and four Vipers. The additional helicopters will bring the fleet to 20, divided equally between the variants. The types share around 85 percent commonality, including engines, dynamic system, avionics, and tail boom. The UH-1Y is optimized for armed assault duties, while the AH-1Z is a dedicated attack helicopter.
The U.S. donation is being made in recognition of the Czech Republic’s willingness to transfer military equipment to Ukraine, which has already seen two Mi-24s being handed over. The remainder of the Mi-24/35 fleet is also earmarked for Ukraine, but Prague needs those helicopters pending delivery of its UH-1Y/AH-1Zs. Under an accelerated program all of the Venoms and Vipers—both new-build and used—are scheduled for delivery next year.
The biggest program for the Czech defense ministry, however, is the procurement of a new fighter. In July the prime minister, Petr Fiala, announced that negotiations would begin on the acquisition of 24 Lockheed Martin F-35As. Jana Cernochova, the defense minister, stated that her office had until October 2023 to secure a pricing agreement. Even if that was not possible in the timeframe, the F-35 was not necessarily off the table, she added.
Currently, the Czech air force operates 14 Saab JAS 39C/D Gripens that are leased from the Swedish government. That lease runs out in 2027, and it is hoped that the F-35As can be delivered in time to take over the country’s air defense commitments. Those duties also include providing—along with Poland—air defense for neighbor Slovakia, which, following the retirement of the MiG-29, is currently without operational fighters while it waits on the delivery of new-build Lockheed Martin F-16s.
The Czech Republic evaluated the Eurofighter Typhoon and Saab Gripen E/F prior to selecting the F-35. Sweden was prepared to hand over the current Gripen C/D fleet to Czech ownership as part of its deal, but in the event the F-35 was chosen, in part because of commonality with other air forces in Europe.