The Czech daily Pravo on March 21 quoted two MPs as saying that the Czech armed forces have chosen the US aircraft manufacturer Bell Helicopter in a tender to supply 12 multi-role helicopters – the acquisition of which the government hopes to wrap up during President Milos Zeman’s trip to the US in late April.
The MPs’ comments, while not yet confirmed by Bell, the US embassy or the Czech Ministry of Defence, tally with what Prague-based industry sources have been telling bne IntelliNews. According to the sources, a government-to-government transaction has been agreed under which Bell Helicopter, a Texas-based division of the Textron aerospace and defence conglomerate, will supply 12 of its of UH-1Y “Venom” helicopters – a twin-engine, medium-sized utility helicopter in the “Huey” family that is used by the US Marine Corps.
“I am pleased that a decision has finally been made. These units [the UH-1Y] are not bad at all. And the American offer is very good as far as the prices and delivery terms are concerned,” the Parliamentary Defence Committee’s deputy chairman, Bohuslav Chalupa, told Pravo, which is often the source of defence stories.
The Czech government had estimated the tender to be worth around CZK8bn-10bn. According to public information, one UH-1Y costs around $24mn, about CZK600mn, though the MPs on the Parliamentary Defence Committee told the paper the American offer is lower at about CZK500mn per unit, making the total cost about CZK6bn ($240mn).
The paper said the defence ministry and cabinet must still approve the decision, expected on March 23, which would then give officials of the defence and finance ministries – who will accompany Zeman on his summit to the US – the greenlight to negotiate the final terms with the Pentagon.
The Foreign Military Sale (FMS) of UH-1Y aircraft to the Czech Republic is a huge win for Bell, which has over the past few years made a strategic push into Europe, the second-largest helicopter market in the world, which included opening in 2015 a new centre for customising and delivering all Bell helicopters sold in Europe at Prague’s Vaclav Havel Airport.
“The UH-1Y is a purpose-built military helicopter with over 25,000 hours in combat. Designed for the rigours of combat and deployed globally in all environments, the UH-1Y ‘Venom’ will safely carry the sons and daughters of the Czech Republic into and out of harm’s way during domestic operations and more importantly during combat and non-combat military deployments to fulfil national commitments,” Ashley Moore, Bell’s senior communications strategist, tells bne IntelliNews.
It also puts Bell in a good position to sell its attack helicopter, the AH-1Z, to the Czech Republic as the country continues its push to replace its aging fleet of Soviet Mil Helicopters. “The AH-1Z has 85% commonality with the UH-1Y [and] has the most advanced target sighting systems in operation today, which is fully integrated with the most robust weapons mix. This aircraft, if requested, would also be sold via the transparent FMS process and would be a government-to-government transaction. The Czech Republic would own and operate transformational aviation capacity if they procure both aircraft on the United State Marine Corps H-1 team,” Moore tells bne.
Buying the Bell helicopters is also a big statement by the Czech Republic, as the UH-1Y is widely seen as the more expensive and sophisticated option out of the bids that also came from the US maker Sikorsky, the Italian firm AgustaWestland and Airbus.
US President Donald Trump has made getting the US’ Nato allies to stump up more for their defence a main plank of his administration’s foreign policy; currently, the only European Nato members that meet the defence spending floor of 2% of GDP are the UK, Estonia, Greece and Poland, with the other 23 countries falling short of the Nato guideline by roughly 1 percentage point. The Czech Republic intends to spend CZK52.5bn on defence in 2017, about 10% more than 2016, which should help bring it closer to the 2% level.
Bell is also looking to sell its helicopters in defence tenders around Europe, such as Poland and Romania, as other countries try to raise their defence spending nearer the 2% of GDP level.
The decision will also do wonders for the relationship between Trump and Zeman, who claims to be the only European head of state to have backed Trump during the campaign and takes pride in being called the “Czech Trump”. The potential back-slapping between the two white, overweight, middle-aged blowhards who like to shock will contrast with the excruciatingly awkward recent meetings between Trump and German Chancellor Angela Merkel and British Prime Minister Theresa May.