Before the events that led to its annexation by Nazi Germany and its partition, Czechoslovakia could boast an important aeronautical industry, capable of producing advanced aircraft that were sometimes ahead of their time. The most important firm at that time was the manufacturer Aero.
After World War II, Aero managed to maintain itself, first producing aircraft under license before designing purely Czechoslovakian aircraft. The launch of the Aero L-29 marked the beginning of a boom period for the company, which had a virtual monopoly on training jets for the Warsaw Pact countries and a large part of the states under Soviet influence, and produced thousands of aircraft.
After the L-29, Aero launched the L-39 Albatros, whose sales figures were even higher. With the fall of the USSR, and the partition of Czechoslovakia, Aero became a Czech company. It had to adapt to survive, and focused on the L-39. First, by launching a re-engined version, the L-59, then by developing a brand new variant, the L-159.
The last offspring of a prolific family, the L-159, once designated ALCA (Advanced Light Combat Aircraft), has little in common with its illustrious ancestor. It has benefited from numerous Western contributions, as Aero Vodochody has relied on extensive cooperation with companies such as Boeing and Honeywell.
However, the L-159 takes the familiar silhouette of the L-39, with a number of aerodynamic improvements. It is nevertheless a little larger. Above all, it benefits from a much more powerful engine: where the L-39 was satisfied with a 16.87 kN engine and the L-59 with 21.6 kN, the L-159 has a 28 kN turbofan of Western design, but still without afterburner. This extra power has allowed a significant improvement in the aircraft’s performance. A dual FADEC system and an EMS (Engine Monitoring System) facilitate the use of the turbofan and maintenance.
A major effort has also been made on the onboard electronics, again with the help of Western manufacturers. The L-159 is equipped with a FIAR GRIFFO L multi-role Doppler radar, with 5 air-to-air search modes, 4 sub-modes for air combat and 9 modes for ground and sea attack. In air-to-air search, the GRIFFO can track up to 8 targets simultaneously. Everything has been done to ensure maximum compatibility with NATO standards. The pilot has a HUD (head-up display), HOTAS controls and a zero-zero ejection seat. The L-159’s protection is provided by a radar warning detector manufactured by the British company BAe and a Vinten system for countermeasures. The fuel tanks are secured (OBIGGS system) and the cockpit is reinforced with ceramic protections. The L-159 can potentially carry an electronic warfare pod.
As for the armament, it no longer has much in common with the very first L-39. The L-159 has two wingtip carry points (for short-range air-to-air missiles), four underwing carry points and one belly carry point. The sources mention a total of 2340 kg of military load, the manufacturer speaking about 2700 kg. In any case, the L-159 is capable of receiving most of the weapons used by NATO member countries.
The standard air-to-air weaponry is the AIM-9 Sidewinder, but the L-159 could eventually use the new IRIS-T missile or even the AIM-132 ASRAAM. In air-to-ground configuration, it can fire AGM-65 Maverick missiles, as well as guided bombs (including 227 kg Mk 82) or rockets. The ventral pod is generally designed to receive a 20 or 23 mm gun pod. Aero reports that it is possible to carry guided bombs, cluster bombs and 350 or 500 liter tanks. As an option, potential customers can ask to have their L-159s equipped with electronic warfare pods, reconnaissance pods (the Thales Vicon 18 pod has been tested for this purpose) or target designation pods, or even medium-range air-to-air missiles. Aero insists on the multi-role character of its L-159.
At present, the fate of the L-159 is promising but very uncertain. For economic reasons, the Czech Air Force has kept only 24 of its 72 aircraft, including four two-seat L-159T1s for training. Iraq ordered 12 L-159T1s in 2014 from Czech stocks. Deliveries are scheduled to begin in September 2014.
Despite several export potentials, including Bolivia, Georgia or Nigeria, only one sale has so far been announced. The reduction of many military budgets is weighing on the L-159’s chances, especially since its launch, competition has increased very seriously.
While Aero could sell thousands of L-39s, it must now rely on numerous and increasingly sophisticated aircraft, especially since its L-159 does not exceed Mach 1. The Yak-130, Aermacchi M-346 or the South Korean T-50 are formidable adversaries. Worse still, the growing success of China in traditional Aero markets, particularly in Africa, further reduces the Czech manufacturer’s possibilities. It is to be feared that the L-159 is the swan song of the Czech aeronautics industry.
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