The interesting question is why.
Hungary may buy the U.S. F-35 stealth fighter.
Not because it loves the F-35, but because the Hungarian government is mad at Sweden.
Swedish and Hungarian media are reporting that Hungary may give up its leased fleet of Swedish-made Jas 39 Gripen fighters in favor of the F-35. The populist government of Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban has drawn criticism from other European nations who accuse him of undermining Hungarian democracy. Critics says Orban is neutering the Hungarian judiciary and fanning anti-Semitism and racism toward refugees.
Not surprisingly, those policies don’t play well in liberal Sweden. “Sweden’s Social Democratic Social Affairs Minister Annika Strandhäll wrote on Twitter that Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s seven-point family planning policy ‘reeks of the 1930s’ and that “what is happening in Hungary is alarming,’” according to Swedish newspaper The Local.
“Now Orban wants to have more ‘real’ Hungarian children,” Strandhäll said. “This kind of policy will harm the autonomy for which women have struggled for decades.”
In turn, Swedish criticism infuriated Hungarian officials. ““The Swedes were digging their own grave with their many anti-Hungarian attacks,” a senior Hungarian government official told Hungarian news site Direkt36. “It is conceivable that we are buying F-35s instead.”
However, Direkt36 also pointed out that many Hungarian officials are also skeptical about an F-35 deal. “One of them claimed that the F-35s are way too advanced for the needs of the Hungarian army, which is tasked with protecting the airspace and air policing but does not perform offensive operations. According to a Hungarian defense expert, the acquisition of F-35s would be a ‘tragic decision for taxpayers. This is the typical case of a BMW 6 parking in front of a run-down Socialist block of flats.’”
One source believes the United States would be “reluctant to supply Hungary’s China and Russia-friendly government with the most advanced fighter jet technology.” Naturally, Russian media—never shy about publicizing squabbles within NATO and Europe—ran the story.
It does seem that Hungary needs to begin thinking about a new fighter. Its fleet of 14 leased Gripens—12 single-seaters plus a pair of two-seaters—were acquired around 2006, at a cost of 210 billion Hungarian florints ($720 million in today’s dollars). The lease will expire in 2026, with the Hungarian air force becoming the proud owner of 20-year old, fourth-generation aircraft.
“Current thinking is that the Gripens – while still operational for many years – will have been surpassed by the spread of fifth-generation multi-role aircraft such as the U.S. F-22 Raptor and the F-35 Lightning II,” said a Hungarian news site.
While they haven’t seen combat, Hungarian Gripens have flown NATO air policing patrols over the Baltic States. The Gripen is currently flown by only five nations: Sweden, the Czech Republic, Hungary, South Africa and Thailand (manufacturer Saab is also offering the fighter to Canada).
Sooner or later, the F-35 is coming to Eastern Europe. Poland has already asked American permission to buy 32 F-35s. But Poland has a tense relationship with Russia. Hungary, despite the Cold War Soviet occupation, has enjoyed warmer ties with Russia, and especially with the authoritarian Putin government. That suggests less of a need for an expensive fifth-generation fighter.
Indeed, Direkt36 noted that “a country with similar needs, Slovakia, is buying 14 F-16Vs, the advanced variant of the F-16 which is much cheaper than the F-35.” None of which is good news for the Gripen, which has not garnered many export orders. But nor it does mean the F-35 will appear in Hungarian colors.