Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Czech L-159

Czechoslovakia originally ordered 72 of Aero Vodochody’s sub-sonic L-159A single-seat light attack jets. Their preceding L-39/59 Albatros trainer and light attack aircraft family became the world’s most popular jet trainers during the Cold War, and the L-159A Advanced Light Combat Aircraft was positioned as a modern derivative, offering full combat capability and compatibility with western weapons. The resulting aircraft filled a useful niche for the Czechs, but its overall success always depended on exports.
Unfortunately, the Soviet Union’s demise lost the Albatros family its global market niche, and killed the military aid subsidies that had helped promote it. Worse, the L-159’s program cost grew from CZK 20-30 billion to over 51 billion Koruna. That left the Czech government in a bind. In response, they’ve been trying to keep 24-35 jets for operational use, and sell off 36-47 of the L-159As (one aircraft has been lost), since 2002. They also moved to privatize state-owned Aero Vodochody, which took place in November 2006.
A few 2-seat L-159T conversions have been performed with CzAF funding, as a demonstration of their potential to become dual-role trainer/attack aircraft. That has helped Aero tout the planes to Afghanistan, Bolivia, Colombia, Georgia, Indonesia, Nigeria… and Iraq, where they finally had a breakthrough.

Aero’s Market Conundrum

L-159A on topnew L-159T below

The L-159s are capable aircraft. They can be fitted with targeting pods and Paveway laser-guided bombs, Sidewinder air-to-air missiles, and the usual assortment of guns, rockets, and conventional bombs. They can even operate from austere bases, and are easy to maintain. Countries looking for relatively low cost planes, that offer basic air patrol and advanced counterinsurgency capabilities, will find the L-159A a great fit. When touting the plane for Colombia, the firm noted that:
“An L-159 pilot can prepare and operate this user-friendly aircraft himself with no ground support. The L-159 can take off from any prepared or unprepared airstrip, during the day or night, in any weather regardless of wet or dry, hot or cold, windy or calm. A glass cockpit, equipped as the latest generation of fighters, is protected by advanced armor, Head-Up and Multi-Function Displays or Hands-On-Throttle-and-Stick concept. This gives the pilot complete confidence to successfully complete any FAC [DID: Forward Air Control targeting and attack] mission required of him.”
Aero’s difficulties stem from a variety of factors.
Supersonic snobbery. One problem is that subsonic light attack jets are often undervalued in favor of prestige buys – vid. Sri Lanka’s desire to purchase a small handful of MiG-29s, instead of acquiring far more L-159s in order to defend against terrorists in light propeller aircraft. They ended up receiving Chinese J-7s (MiG-21 copies), which have endurance issues on combat air patrols, and are even less suitable for counter-insurgency roles.
Accepted alternatives. A 2nd problem is that established entries like Brazil’s EMB-314 Super Tucano and BAE’s Hawk 109/209 already crowd the field, and have better long-term prospects in the regions likely to buy a single-seat, subsonic combat jet. The Super Tucano has always doubled as an advanced trainer, and BAE’s Hawk 209 has an array of new and used 2-seat trainer counterparts ready for sale. Aero’s L-159T variant wasn’t market-ready until 2007, and has a thin service record. Meanwhile, the L-39 and L-59 are out of production, making L-159s less attractive to countries who might have bought L-159A ALCAs along with new trainers. In recent years, Indonesia and neighboring Poland both fit the profile of countries looking for trainers with light attack capabilities, but the L-159 was not reported as a factor in either competition.
Cold-blooded customers. The L-159’s 3rd problem involves Aero Vodochody’s former customer base. The Czech Republic’s happy return to the family of free nations is its own barrier to sales. Many of the Soviet Union’s former clients, who bought Albatros jets, are deservedly well-known for brutality. This meshes poorly with democratic oversight from a recently-freed people, who will protest exports that are seen as unethical. In the Soviet era, for instance, Syria’s Bashar Assad would have been shipped Czech light attack planes without a second thought, for use against any internal enemies he cared to target. In 2012, there was never any possibility of Assad receiving L-159As, even though Syria flies L-39s, and the L-159As’ near-immediate delivery would have dovetailed with Assad’s top military priority. Syria bought Russian Yak-130s instead.
The American angle. The L-159’s American military technologies, which include its avionics, Honeywell F124 engine, and most of its weapons, require US government approval for exportunder US ITAR laws. While the Czechs would never sell to regimes like Syria, ITAR’s price was made clear in 2009, when the USA reportedly blocked a Czech attempt to sell a handful of L-159s to Bolivia. Instead, the contract went to another regime that doesn’t ask questions: China sold Bolivia its K-8 trainer/ light attack jets instead.
To add insult to injury, Aero’s lack of a US manufacturing base left it shut out of the US-run Light Air Support contract, which will buy 20 planes for the Afghan Air Force. The AAF flies L-39s, and L-159s would have been a good fit, but they’ll be receiving turboprops assembled in the USA instead.
All of this has made for slow sales.

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