On 1 May 2018, Major General Petr Hromek became the new Commander of the Czech Air Force. He replaced Major General Jaromir Šebesta. Despite the fact that the Czech Air Force may be thought of as a small one, commanding it still remains a truly demanding job. We asked General Hromek for an assessment of the Czech Air Force and his vision for its future.
Sir, congratulations on your promotion and new position. Considering that the Czech Air Force’s capacity and capability may not be well understood by a broad audience, could you give the readers of the JAPCC Journal a sense of what your new command will entail?
Being a Commander of the Air Force is a great honour and responsibility for me. The Czech Air Force is composed of six major components. The 21st Tactical Air Force Base harbours the main combat power of 14 supersonic JAS-39 C/D fighters supported by two squadrons of subsonic L-159 Advanced Light Combat Aircraft (ALCA). The 22nd Helicopter Air Force Base with squadrons of Mi-171 and Mi-35 helicopters provide transport and fire support to land forces as well as search and rescue services. The 24th Transport Air Force Base operates a fleet of Airbus A-319, CASA C-295, indigenous L-410 and Challenger C-601 aircraft, as well as W-3A Search and Rescue (SAR) helicopters. The 25th Air Defence Battalion operates various Ground Based Air Defence (GBAD) assets, such as modernized SA-6 systems, short-range RBS-70 systems, and older, but still capable, SA-13 systems. The 26th Command and Control Battalion is the node responsible for continuous Recognised Air Picture (RAP) production and distribution, air traffic services, and NATO-connected Control and Reporting Centre (CRC) operations, which manage the Quick Reaction Alert (QRA) forces. Lastly, the Training Centre in Pardubice provides a broad scale of support to the Air Force units, including an education programme for beginner pilots and preparation in several simulators.
How do you assess the state of the Czech Air Force?
I think I took over the Air Force in very good shape. Looking back, our membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) brought extensive technical upgrades and a much more significant shift in knowledge and training levels. Such progress provided fundamental performance improvements as well as an increased level of flight safety. Our NATO Allies confirm the high standards of the Czech Air Force achievements on joint exercises and foreign missions. All units are engaged in real-world operations and the operational tempo we are experiencing now is really impressive. A pair of QRA JAS-39 permanently contributes to NATO’s integrated air and missile defence system and we additionally support NATO Allies in the Baltic region and Island air policing missions on a rotational basis. In addition to homeland search and rescue services, our helicopters were deployed to the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), supporting a long-term Afghani Air Force training mission. An air advisory team is also deployed to Iraq, providing assistance to the Iraqi Air Force L-159 ALCA operations. One of our transport C-295 CASA aircraft is also part of a long-term commitment to support the United Nations’ Multinational Force and Observers (MFO) mission on the Sinai Peninsula. Other elements contribute to the NATO Response Forces (NRF) and the European Union Battlegroup (EUBG). The Czech Air Force is hosting significant NATO exercises in support of Allied improvements in Close Air Support (CAS), Joint Fires, and Air/Land Integration. Our appetite to support training with opposing ‘Red Air Forces’ is well known and we support many exercises and evaluations with this capability.
What are your priorities?
The first priority I always highlight is my attention to the Air Force personnel. The goal is to stabilize Air Force manpower. After decades of declining defence budgets and relocations of several units, it is now time to switch from ‘capabilities survival mode’ to ‘recovery and development’ mode. Set objectives require younger, well-trained, and highly motivated personnel – almost a new generation. Air Force leadership has provided extra effort focused on recruitment, education and training. The most urgent situation prevails in the GBAD units, which bore the full weight of budget cuts in the last economic crisis. Our recruitment tempo ensures we are filling open positions with high-quality personnel, and it allows us enough time to train them for challenges unlike any we have seen before. Additionally, we intend to tailor and accelerate the training syllabus so the fresh personnel can reach full operational status earlier in their careers. New national legislation has dictated reaccreditation of many university study programs, including the Czech University of Defence. We have taken this as an opportunity to closely cooperate with academia to meet contemporary national defence demands. Speaking about human resources, it is important to realize that pilots, system operators, or air traffic controllers are only the tip of the iceberg. The less visible volume of manpower required to support the flying mission also deserves the best care. In summary, my aim is to rejuvenate people and enhance proficiency.
What are the main challenges facing the Czech Air Force?
The modernization process is not fully completed and strategic level procurement programmes are a long-lasting challenge. Since the development authority rests outside of the Air Force structure, it can sometimes be difficult to procure an asset that is needed quickly. The most urgent requirement is the procurement of modern, NATO-compatible, three-dimensional (3D), mobile Air Defence (AD) radars. Our ageing radars have passed their projected technical life multiple times already, and the art of life extension is reaching its limits as the unique, irreplaceable core parts wear out. We are minimizing our dependence on Russian hardware, which will eventually require the replacement of assets like our Mi-24 helicopter fleet. We are continuing to scan the market for western-built counterparts. A positive step forward is the near-future enlargement of our Spanish-made CASA C-295 fleet resulting in the retirement of our Russian-made Yak-40s.
How do you see the future?
Our near-term objectives are set. The gradual rise of our defence budget ensures the procurements of strategic importance should not be disturbed. New radars are truly essential for production of a high-fidelity, 3D air picture that we can distribute to national and NATO systems. Land forces will receive advanced day and night multi-role support once new helicopters become operational. We are still analysing the appropriate size of our air transport fleet. We are considering joining some of multinational, capacity-sharing programmes in addition to expansion of our CASA C-295 fleet. The intended procurement of the Brazilian-made KC-390 Embraer is still beyond the fiscal horizon. We have well-defined milestones on our road map to the future. The current JAS-39 contract will terminate in the timeframe 2025–2027, and we must make the extremely important strategic decision about how to proceed well in advance. All options, as well as numbers, are still open, to continue with the current JAS-39 C/D, upgrade to the JAS-39 E/F, or possibly change to a new generation of fighters. The solution we choose will affect our entire Air Force as well as the entire Alliance. The future role of L-159 squadrons, infrastructure, and ammunition stockpiles are just a few examples of what we have to adapt in the next long-term planning cycle. The second significant milestone is the unavoidable replacement of the current GBAD systems. Despite extensive modernization, our Air Defence awaits technological steps forward. We are working to increase interoperability, mobility, and maximum engagement range of all assets. Additionally, we are seeking investment in Counter-Rocket, Artillery, and Mortar (C-RAM) and Ballistic Missile Defence (BMD) capabilities. My responsibility today is to support selection of the best possible solutions while engaging in education and training to continue building a highly-capable, modern Air Force.
I always emphasize reliable and safe execution of Air Force duties. The Czech Air Force will continue to work hard to prove that we are a reliable and credible NATO ally. Air Policing, CAS, Short-Range Air Defence, and multinational interoperability training are the highlighted calls we are happy to answer. In today’s unpredictable security environment, the credibility, reliability, and sustainability of our forces are essential. The future is in young and highly-trained professionals, combat-ready and interoperable equipment, and reliable and sustainable support.