JAS-39 Gripen Hungarian Air Force
Copyright: Andrea Avian

Hungarian Air Force: from MiG to Gripen

Magyar Légierő,(Hungarian Air Force), after the end of second World War, felt under the Soviet influence, and this led to the estabilishment of a Soviet made flight fleet, equipped with MiG and Sukhoi.

On 1993, as refunding for the occupation years, the Russians gave to HUNAF 28 MiG 29, and this represented a huge step forward in terms of capabilites, if compared with the old MiG 21, MiG 23 and Su 22, that equipped until that time the Hungarian fleet.

Due to the existing missinformation the MiG 29 was a fighter jet often understimated in the West.  The reason for that was the aim  to make it  appear inferior to  Western jets, and because it was created under a completely different philosophy from the occidental one, but it was a very versatile  jet.

Col. Tibor Zsamboki was the last Commander of Dongo Squadron. He explains us that “the MiG 21 was developed  and built in the 50’s, while the MiG 29 in the 80’s years. The MiG 21 never forgive any pilot’s mistake during flying. It was unable to fly at low speed or on high AoA (Angle of Attack), its radar was a joke, a real good-for-nothing instrument and the missiles also, except the R-60 Aphid. It was the first Russian-made air-to-air infrared missile which had high manoeuvrability, but after the F-16 become a standard weaponary in the NATO, the MiG 21 finally become outdated and useless pure metal. Instead, the MiG 29 is a pilot’s dream: there are no limits, you can do whatever you want, Two brutal engines, on afterburner you have a thrust/weight ratio over much more than 1, no limitation of AoA. The radar had good characteristics, the R-27 Alamo and R-73 Archer were quite good air to air missiles. The main diadvantage of MiG 29 was a “short leg”: with full fuel tank you could burn all petrol less than 20 minutes. Another disadvantage was the avionic and the lack of a modern and capable weapon-system computer. The radar had a great performance by distance and angle of view, but there wasn’t an appropriate weapon-system computer which was able to transform the signs in evaluable information for the pilot! That’s why all Russian aircraft were heavily GCI (Ground Controller Interceptor)- dependent.

The main role of MiG 29 was air defence. Did you use it even for ground attack and what kind of weapon did you use? Yes, we did. We could put under the wings bombs, 50-100-250 and 500Kg, not giuded rockets S-5 in block UB-16 and UB-32, the bigger S-8 rockets in the B-8M pods and S-24 heavy unguided rockets. The accuracy of target’s destroying was horrible, due to the lack of ground-targeting system. The only thing which was able to improve the accuracy was the laser range finder. Finding and identification of targets made by pilot, using his sense-system (eyes). The most accurate weapon was the GS-30-1 gun with 150 pieces 30mm bulets, we could hit any track-size target in the range.

During Yugoslavian wars, in 1993 and 1999, did you have real scramble? In the first Yugoslavian war we had kept a strengthened air policing duty in all 3 fighter Wings, putting some radar squadrons closer to the border and keeping Mi-24 in combat patrol at the south border of Hungary. We had few “Alpha” scramble orders almost every day against Ygoslavian jets. Their tactic was to fly straight into the border to provocate us; our duty at Veszprèm (Command and Reporting Centre) at the proper distance had alerted the closest QRA and sent the fighters to the estimated meeting point-but it happened-I mean the a “meeting”- just once and it was a young Serbian pilot who has got lost. So normally we made a CAP at the border until we got fuel.

After the end of alleance with Soviet Union, how did you get spare parts? After the dismissing of Warsaw Pact the supply of spare parts was a little bit difficult and it remained till the end. We sent our former Air Force Chief,a  tri-stars General, to Moscow as national representative to the MiG-MAPO to arrange the acquisitions but even this way become incapable. The Hungarian system for buying spare parts also was bureaucratic-so, this behaviour from both sides caused the result at the end, namely remaining only four birds in service.

With the collapse of Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact, gradually all the former member countries  of the Russian alliance became members of NATO, and the lack of  systems such as IFF and Link-16 made the interoperability with the other Western jets difficult, and consequentely the participation to COMAO (COmposite Air Operations), that are the base of NATO doctrine.

Poland decided to up-grade its MiG 29 fleet, while Hungary, Czech republic, Germany, Romania, and in the next future, even Bulgaria and Slovakia, decided to replace their MiG 29 with Western products, if possible cheap, and the fighter jet that excelled in the choice of several Countries, was the Swedish SAAB JAS 39 Gripen.

Nowadays Magyar Légierő is  smaller than in the past, equipped with only one Squadron, the 1. Vadàszrepülő Szàzad “Puma”, part of MH 59. (59th Tactical Fighter Wing), based in Kecskèmet, but more capable then in the past and well integrated in NATO.

Hungary became member of Atlantic Alliance in 1999, and this led to a gradual modernization and reorganization. All the soviet-made MiG 21, MiG 23 and Su 22,  even the Czechoslovak L-39, had been gradually withdraw from service, keeping only two Fighter groups, Puma and Dongo, both equipped with the MiG 29 and based in Kecskemèt.

In 2001 Hungary began the deal with SAAB for the leasing of 14 JAS 39C/D Gripens, and the first delivery arrived in 2006.

This led even to a re-organization of the path of pilots from the Academy till the Unit. In 2001 Hungarian Air Force signed a contract with Canada for the training of new pilots till 2019. This program is structured in a first part, where pilots begin the basic flight with T-6, and the best cadet of the course pass to next step that consists of learning the military aspects of flight on the Hawk. The other cadets of the first step will be assigned to transport aircraft or to helicopter units.

After around 100 hours on the Hawk, the pilot completes his conversion training in Sweden, flying the Gripen for three months, and later he will be assigned to Puma Squadron in Kecskemèt. The main role of Hungarian Gripens is the air defence, and the pilots are always under training to be ready for the QRA. A secondary role is air-to-ground attack, in particular CAS (Close Air Support).

In the air-to-air role the Hungarian Gripen, such as the Czech, are armed with AIM 9 Sidewinder and AIM 120 Amraam missiles, unlike   the Swedish Gripen, who are not in the NATO and they use only their own weapons. In the air-to-ground role, the employment of the Litening III pod, led to goals that should have been difficult to achieve in the past with the MiG aircraft

Since Hungary ishas been a NATO member, its air force has to follow NATO operational rules, so they have to be combat ready not only in air-to-air but even in air-to-ground roles.

As Brig. Gen. Csaba Ugrik, base Commander, explains :“the introduction of the Gripen in Hungarian Air Force led to a radical change in our menthality and tactics. The Gripen is a multirole aircraft, with advanced avionics, it is easier to fly than  the MiG. In addition with the SAAB aircraft we can perform different types of mission, just switching the radar mode we can face different tasks, and thanks to systems such as Link 16 we can co-operate with our NATO collegues. We can simply explain the difference between MiG era and Gripen era, describing the percentage of pilot workload during flight: with MiG 29  80 percent was dedicated to fly, 20 percent to  the target, with Gripen, 20 percent to  flying, 80 percent to  the target.

In terms of maintenance the Gripen represents a step forward. After the end of the alliance with Russia, the collaboration between the two Countries ended and this meant that even  providing   spare parts and technician training for the MiG was  over. With the Gripen, the cooperation with swedish technicians is fully active and the training of Hugarian ground crews as well. At MH 59. the aircraft is overhauled after 50 and 200 hours, with particularly attention to the engine, and after 800 hours it is sent to SAAB for deeper checks. Differently from russian engines, the Gripen’s RM12  engine  has a life of around 8-10.000 flight hours and as 1st Lt. Bàlint Földi  explains,  it can be replaced in only four hours.

Leasing a fighter jet was seen as the best option for Hungary’s operational strategy and requirements. The total price has to be paid in smaller amounts during the leasing period. The contract also covers continuous support and training needs. Brig. Gen. Csaba Ugrik explains that “our contract is mainly with Swedish State, not directely with SAAB. The leasing includes all the upgrades that SAAB needs to apply to the aircraft, we pay an extra only if we ask for an additional upgrade. In 2026 the leasing will end, and at this moment the decision for the future is still to be undertaken.

MH 59. maintains a QRA for its own airspace under NATO command. This responsability was expanded dramatically in 2015 when four Gripen aircraft had been deployed to Siauliai air base, in Lithuania, for the rotation of the Baltic Air Policing mission. This had been the most demanding mission of HunAF after the second World War.

The first mission took place on 3rd September, and just on 15th September the Hungarian Gripen took off for the first “Alpha” scramble. One of the main pushes for this deployment was a live missile firing exercise in spring 2015 in Sweden. The deployment undertook daily “Tango” (Training) scrambles, as well as regular training flights with the Estonia-based Luftwaffe contingent.

The mission in Lithuania was a big success for the Hungarian Air Force, proving that the high profesionally level of Hungarian pilots in QRA was the same of the other NATO allies. This experience allowed the Hungarian Air Force to be responsible even for the security of Slovenian air space, which is provided  by Hungarian Gripens 24/7 .

In conclusion, the Gripen proved to be  the right choice for a small Country like  Hungary, who was coming out from the Russian era. The Swedish aircraft is smart, reliable, cheap in terms of mainteinance and it allows the new Hungarian Air Force to perfectly operate in the NATO doctrine.

A special thanks to Brig.Gen Csaba Ugrik, Col. Tibor Zsamboki, Lt Robert Toth and Hungarian Air Force Headquarter in Budapest

Article: Andrea Avian
Images: Andrea Avian, Hungarian Air Force, Andreas Zeitler