The Czech Air Force achieved a significant milestone as their fighters participated in the prestigious Arctic Challenge Exercise for the first time in history. This exercise also provided a unique opportunity to compare the Saab JAS-39 Gripen fighters with the potential successor of the Lockheed Martin F-35A Lightning, giving valuable insights into their real-world performance. The two-week exercise, which concluded on June 9, is held every two years and is jointly organized by Norway, Sweden, and Finland. The invitation to participate in this exercise is considered a privilege due to its non-alliance nature and the vast airspace it covers. The Czech pilots went through an intense training experience during the “Arctic Challenge,” undertaking a total of 50 flights and spending over 90 hours in the air.
The Arctic Challenge Exercise is renowned as one of the largest air exercises in Europe. It involves joint air operations planning and training, specifically focusing on coordinating air combat tactics and fostering collaboration among different units. For the Czech fighters, ACE 2023 provided a unique opportunity to practice cooperation and interoperability between 4th and 5th generation combat aircraft. This year’s Arctic Challenge Exercise was exceptional in terms of participation, with approximately 150 tactical aircraft taking off from various Nordic bases for a two-week period. Accompanying the aircraft were 2,700 soldiers from 13 different states. The Czech contingent contributed five JAS-39C Gripen aircraft and approximately 40 flying, ground, and security personnel.
The pilots operated from four different air bases across three countries: Luleå-Kallax in Sweden, Ørland Air Base in Norway, and Rovaniemi and Pirkkala airports in Finland. At Ørland Air Base in Norway, Czech fighters collaborated with Norwegian, Italian, Dutch, and American F-35A Lightning II aircraft, as well as Belgian F-16MLUs. The base also hosted three American KC-135R tankers and two NATO AWACS aircraft. During the exercise, the Czech participants had the opportunity to witness the stringent security measures and even took part in an expert tour of the F-35A facilities.
In addition to aircraft, the exercise also encompassed air defense capabilities. Flying took place five days a week in two waves, with morning flights focusing on joint training with units from the same base. In the afternoon, all participants engaged in joint operations, involving approximately one hundred tactical, transport, and support aircraft, including AWACS and tankers. Ground air defense assets were also incorporated into the exercises. Participants tackled a wide range of tasks, such as engaging air and ground targets, countering enemy air defense, in-flight refueling, and precision shooting. This unique opportunity fostered cooperation between fourth and fifth generation combat aircraft, highlighting the significance of joint training and interoperability.