The Hungarian Air Force is no stranger to the Baltic Air Policing role; its Saab Gripens have just completed their third tour with a fourth already planned.
On 29 July, 2022, four Saab JAS 39 Gripen Cs of the Hungarian Air Force’s (HunAF) ‘Puma’ Squadron departed the 59th Air Force Base in Kecskemét bound for Šiauliai Air Base, Lithuania. Their task? To serve as ‘lead nation’ for the 60th rotation of NATO’s Baltic Air Policing (BAP) Mission; an international effort to protect the airspace above Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia. Since its inception in 2004 (originally operating on a three-month deployment, later extended to four), 17 nations have taken part, primarily operating out of a base that was, up until 1993, a Soviet facility.
The four-month rotation marks the HunAF’s third participation in the mission (having previously been deployed there in 2015 and 2019) and, under unprecedented circumstances, overlapped with the Czech Gripens of the previous deployment. The Italian Air Force had cited their apparent inability to operate from the base’s ‘current infrastructure’, which meant that the Czech mission had to be extended by eight weeks. However, since taking over as lead nation on 1 August, the HUNAF have certainly been busy – not just with Alpha scrambles – but a whole host of training missions.
Given the current geopolitical climate and obvious tensions with Russia, the expectation might have been that the number of ‘quick reaction’ scrambles performed by the HUNAF would have increased since their 2019 stint. However, as Lt. Col. Attila Ványik (HDF BAP Block 60 Commander) explained: ’’They’re sometimes not so friendly, but I wouldn’t call them aggressive”.
In fact, the overall amount of Alpha scrambles have remained roughly the same since the Hungarian’s previous deployment here: 18 occasions where, within a fifteen-minute window, two armed Gripens were airborne and ready to intercept a flight perceived as potentially hostile. This situation typically occurs when “something is missing”, explained pilot Major József Papp, such as an aircraft flying in international airspace without a flight plan, or lack of use of radio or transponder. However, with unwarranted attention notably focused elsewhere in Eastern Europe, the Hungarian detachment noted no significant escalation in tension. “They try to make our life a bit harder, but it’s not especially aggressive”, noted Papp. Even the fighter escorts (commonly accompanying recognition, VIP and special cargo flights), while ‘usually armed’, were “pretty much the same as before”.
“They’re trying to make our life harder, but it’s not especially aggressive,” Commander Lt. Col. Attila Ványik.
One significant aspect was different this time round: it was noted that hostile aircraft are no longer ‘cutting the corner’ of airspace en route to the Russian province of Kalingrad, perhaps indicative of a desire not to further escalate international tension.
However, the Hungarian activities extend far beyond their 18 Alpha scrambles. As of November 14 2022, their team of seven pilots have undertaken 60 Tango (training) scrambles, one Sierra scramble, 10 Readiness State 5 alerts (with engine running in hangars) , 23 RS10 alerts (APU running and standing by in hangars), and 25 training flights – with a collective total flight time of 275 hours.
A new schedule introduced in October saw the participant air forces (including the augmenting nations: the Polish mission at Šiauliai flying Lockheed Martin F-16Cs, the Germans at Ämari and the Italians based in Malbork – both flying Euofighter Typhoons) rotated though a series of ‘hot’ and ‘cold’ weeks. During the later (which occurs once a month), two pilots are kept on ‘readiness state 180’: a three-hour window to be armed and in the air (although it’s usually achieved within two). Its purpose? To maximise training opportunities, which Papp describes as a “great decision”; allowing the ‘cold week’ nation to “fly some special missions, some different missions” that wouldn’t otherwise be possible with fully-armed aircraft. “When we want to maximise training opportunities, we fly the mission and rearm the jet after landing,” explained Papp. “I think we are the only nation doing that; certainly repeated that often.”
This quick turnaround time is, in part, made possible by the Gripen itself, which can typically be re-armed by a crew of four in under 30 minutes. Also invaluable is the ‘hot pit’ procedure used to refuel and re-arm jets immediately after landing (without shutting the engine down) before the next mission; a process taking as little as 15-20 minutes depending on the stores required. A total of 78 HUNAF personnel deployed on this mission include 20-25 technicians, split into two groups; the first working on the Gripens every day, and the second a ‘troubleshooting’ group. “It only takes two people to operate this aircraft daily if everything goes according to plan,” observed Papp, adding that even major repairs requiring a flight back to Hungary can be turned around the same day.
Unlike the limitations imposed by manufacturers of other platforms, the ability to generate sovereign mission data after every mission – something that happened on a daily basis – was of huge benefit; allowing the HUNAF to update their library mission to mission.
What’s next for the Hungarian Gripen fleet? As part of Saab’s rolling programme of improvement, an upgrade to the MS20 Block 2 configuration is due within “the next year”. Regarding armament itself, despite being “in the ball park with the other nations here,” Papp mentions the potential for weapons upgrades as being the “main area to improve” (although there’s no comment as to the variant of AIM-120 AMRAAM in use). Perhaps the upcoming ‘Saab users group’ – a biannual event where users of the type can collectively identify areas for further improvement – may divulge more.
As three Gripens prepared to depart on a morning’s training exercise, two unarmed jets destined for a 1v1 air combat sortie, while a third undertook a navigation and reconnaissance flight close to the border, it was easy to understand how this comparatively inexpensive, cost-effective, capable fighter might be a deemed of use to Ukraine. Although Ványik declines to comment, think-tank analysts (conducted by the Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies) recently cited the airframe as “by far the most suitable candidate in terms of operational requirements”.
The current BAP schedule will see the HunAF Gripens returning this role for a fourth time in 2025.
by Charlotte Bailey