This article gives an overview of jet aircraft in Austrian military service, from 1957 until 2007, when the first EF-2000 Eurofighter Typhoon was commissioned.
A brief history of jet aircraft in Austrian military service
When on July 8, 1955, the Allies of WWII lifted the ban on all military activity in still-occupied Austria, it took just one week until the equivalent of an MoD was created. The state treaty followed in October, and there it was: An alpine republic, reborn as a neutral state, sitting out the cold war -situated right in-between NATO and the Warsaw Pact. On October 15, 1956, a year after reclaiming independence, the first 12.800 conscripts began their service with the Austrian armed forces, the Bundesheer. (Just nine days later, a fifth of them would see immediate border operations in the wake of the Hungarian Uprising.) On January 1, 1957, a joint air command was set up.
Barrelling through the sub-sonic Era, 1957-1985
As their first jet-powered aircraft, Austria purchased nine De Havilland DH-115 “Vampire”, delivered between 1957 and 1964. While armed with machine guns, the Vampire mainly served transitioning and training purposes for pilots and ground personnel. Two aircraft were lost while in service with the Austrian armed forces; one of the incidents occurred after an overhaul with the manufacturer, resulting in both British test pilots killed.
Little later, 18 French Potez/Fouga CM170 “Magister” were purchased. Delivered between 1959 and 1963, the aircraft with the eye-catching tail fins saw use with the “Silver Birds”, an air acrobatics team active 1966-1976. Two planes crashed, resulting in four fatalities. The unarmed aircraft were phased out and sold between 1969 and 1972.
Almost at the same time as the Magister, Austria had procured 30 used Saab J-29 “Tunnan” from the Swedish Air Force, the Flygwapnet. The Barrels, built 1953-1954, were purchased in 1960 as an outspoken interim solution. At the time, the Swedes had already started to replace the type by the more advanced Saab 35 “Draken”. Interestingly, the fastest aircraft in Austrian service yet was procured to fill a CAS-role, but neither rockets nor bombs would ever be purchased; instead, one of the internal cannons was set up to be replaced by a set of cameras for occasional reconnaissance operations. Air policing and/or interception was but the tertiary mission for the stunted little plane.
Two batches of 15 planes each were delivered 1960-1961. When the last aircraft were retired in 1972, nine had been lost in accidents, resulting in eight fatalities. One of the more curious incidents happened in 1964: A pair of jets had gotten lost due to a faulty compass and ran out of fuel over Czechoslovakia. While there were no casualties, both aircraft had to be withdrawn from service as a result of the damage sustained from emergency landings.
The Tunnan were scheduled for retirement after about five years of use, but were phased out only after 1970. Prior to that date, however, the armed forces realised the need for a supersonic air asset: The Draken was favoured over Dassault Mirage types and Northrop’s F-5. In November 1966, two pilots were dispatched to Sweden for evaluation purposes and procurement of no less than 35 Draken was announced in July 1967.
1968 saw a procurement not of the craved Swedish dragons, but of 20 Saab 105OE jet trainers – and then, another 20 were scooped up in a twist in 1970, when deal between Sweden and Pakistan was called off, due to the latter’s involvement in a war with India. This spur-of-the-moment purchase left the air arm of a notoriously underfunded army with empty coffers and made purchasing actual interceptors impossible: no sonic booms would be heard over Austria for another two decades. The 105 replaced the remaining Vampire and Tunnan aircraft. The type, originally devised by Saab as a small (2-4 seats) and fast (970km/h) business or private jet, is still in service with the Austrian and Swedish air force. It continues to see use as a trainer, auxiliary interceptor and VIP shuttle. Armament is now (again) limited to a pair of 30mm machine cannons mounted on external hardpoints. For past use in reconnaissance and CAS roles, unguided 75mm rockets, air-sampling and camera pods were available. Differing from the Flygvapnet version, the Austrian planes’ engines produce almost twice the thrust and can carry significantly more fuel.
The infographic shows a remarkable cluster of flight accidents involving fatalities in the first years of service, with the rate flattening out in the 1980s. A rather amusing incident however happened in 1977, when a flame-out and subsequent misunderstanding between the two pilots prompted one to eject. The remaining flier was then able to restart the engines and continued to steer the canopy-less aircraft homeward.
All in all, the 105 continued to prove itself a very reliable aircraft. Starting in 2010, some airframes underwent a service life extension programme (SLEP), while others were phased out and salvaged. The programme included instalment of left-over system parts from decommissioned planes such as the Draken and the Tiger (see below) as well as commercial-off-the-shelf GPS receivers. Despite this, flight hours have to be distributed among the remaining airframes in such a manner that their service life can be stretched out for the longest time possible.
The Austrian Armed Forces continue to list the planes that are no longer flightworthy in their inventory, stating a total of 28 aircraft in December 2015 while openly acknowledging that 10 of them are no longer flyable.
The 105’s top speed, just under 1.000km/h, is high enough for most of the type’s roles, but makes the aircraft impractical for interception tasks, even when confronted only with civilian airliners, not to speak of combat aircraft. As a result, the Bundesheer kept its sights on purchasing a speedier fighter throughout the 1970s and early 80s.
Ancient Dragons and Swiss Tigers, 1986-2007
The fliers would get their dragons, eventually: in 1985, a contract over 24 used Saab 35 “Draken” airframes, built between 1963 and 1968, was signed. The single-engine fighter with the distinct double-delta had its maiden flight in 1955 and was the first European fighter jet capable of Mach 2. Initial type training was conducted in Sweden starting in 1987, with the first Dragons arriving in Austria in mid-1988. The used jets came with a maximum of 2.800 flight hours in the Flygvapnet, and an armament of two 30mm cannon each. Service in Austria was projected to last 10 years (1.000 flight hours per plane) so as to build up experience in operating and maintaining of supersonic interceptors.
The 1991 breakup of Yugoslavia did not fail to have implications also in neighboring Austria: When a MiG-21 on a reconnaissance mission penetrated Austrian airspace and overflew the major city of Graz, the hitherto poor public opinion of the “scrap planes” shifted overnight. Armed air patrols were flown with short intervals, hampered by the fact that the air arm suffered from a high fluctuation of pilots as a result of the services’ less-than-stellar public reputation. Armament was overthought and changes in legislation were made: Pt. II Art. 13c of the 1955 state treaty had effectively banned the Austrian armed forces from possessing any kind of missiles or rockets up to that point. A rather obvious child of its time, when self-propelling weapons were mainly seen as offensive means, the article was declared obsolete and first deliveries of AIM-9P3 Sidewinders from the Flygvapnet commenced in 1994. The same year saw the beginning of internal upgrades: Radar warning receivers as well as chaff and flare dispensers were installed.
With new year’s eve 1995, the projected end of service life for the Draken came and went. Few plans had been made and fewer steps taken towards procuring a successor, so the decades-old airframes lumbered on. As a rather peculiar SLEP-type measure that didn’t actually involve any of the aircraft, Austrian pilots were routinely dispatched to Sweden, where they would complete part of their annual 120-150 flight hours’ obligation on more recent planes such as the Saab JA-37 “Jaktviggen”. This helped preserve the all but spent airframes and keep the piloting force motivated. In 1997 however, the cooperation came to an end. Worse still, the Swedish twin seaters were retired and Austria, in possession of a fleet of single seaters, was left unable to train any new pilots. Before late, Austria would be the sole operator of the type: The Dragons’ final countdown had begun. When the last seven flightworthy aircraft were grounded for good in 2005, the model had been aloft for half a century. In their 17 years of service, the 24 Draken had racked up 245 alpha scrambles and 23.545 flight hours in 27.518 take-offs. Thereby, they almost matched the projected average 1.000 of hours per airframe, albeit stretched out over almost twice the projected service time. Most notably, the service’s first supersonic jet was also the first type without any accidents or losses, despite the fact that when they were retired, the airframes had seen more than four decades of use.
Until the successor would be delivered, a lease of 12 F-5E “Tiger” from Switzerland – the type that was considered alongside the Draken four decades earlier – helped police Austrian skies. Tigers flew from 2004 until after the end of the EURO 2008, when the then-delivered Typhoon aircraft (see below) took over. The nimble plane, an evolution from yet another 1950s design, performed well, with the only incident being a belly landing in 2007.
The Dragon, meanwhile, would enjoy one more (brief) heyday: In what is most likely an unparalleled achievement among military aircraft worldwide, Draken ’07’ did not let its age, decommissioning or lack of a pilot get in its way and conducted a successful “interception” as late as 2011.
A Stormy Procurement, 2000-on
A political earthquake had coincided with the turn of the millennia, and the new centre-right government committed to the procurement of new interceptors in 2000. Requests for information were sent to Boeing (F/A-18 E/F), Dassault (Mirage 2000-5), Lockheed (F-16 C/D) and Saab (JAS-39). EADS expressed surprise for not having been included in this round, and was belatedly invited to participate. Boeing, EADS, Lockheed and Saab submitted documents. [Note: Russian Aircraft Corporation MiG had sent an unsolicited offer for 24 MiG-29SMT and 6 MiG-29UBT in 2000, but was turned down shortly thereafter.] 2001 saw the request for proposals and subsequent offers from the latter three were submitted in January 2002. In July, EF-2000 Eurofighter Typhoon were chosen to replace the Draken in a strict air-policing role and the procurement of 24 ‘interceptor aircraft’ for then-€1,791bn was announced. [Note: The continued use of the somewhat anachronistic term ‘interceptor’ is a tribute not only in name to Austria’s understanding of its own neutrality. A ‘multirole-fighter’, ‘air superiority platform’ or ‘fighter-bomber’, are terms and roles that resonate badly with the public and thus were expected to stiffen existing opposition to the purchase.]
The Typhoon’s procurement was ill-fated right from the start: the very necessity of an air policing element was repeatedly called into question – oddly enough, founded on Austria’s neutrality as an underlying argument. A multitude of political and legal battles surrounding the procurement ensued and continues to this day. Only six weeks after the announcement, in mid-August, the government decided to reduce the number of aircraft from 24 to 18 to offset the projected recovery cost of massive floods that had struck central Europe that month. When the contract was signed in 2003, a mere 15 Draken pilots were still in service, alongside a fleet of 23 sometimes-flightworthy airframes.
The Typhoon procurement became an ever more political affair: parliamentary elections in 2006 brought about a new administration that had, in part, campaigned on promising a cancellation of the entire purchase. 2007 saw the re-negotiation of the original contract and a further downscaling in numbers, models and equipment. While the initial purchase had included six Tranche 1 aircraft and 12 from Tranche 2 for then-€1,969bn, the new deal called for the delivery of nine new and six used aircraft – all Tranche 1, radically downgraded to just the most essential systems, for €1,709bn. [Note: The renegotiation actually resulted in a price increase per aircraft from €109,39m for the all-new T1/T2 jets to €113,93m for the new/used, stripped-down T1 models.]
The first of the batch of new jets was delivered in July 2007 and the last Tiger returned to Switzerland a year later. September 2009 marked the arrival of the 15th and final Austrian Typhoon.
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