LONDON - The Hungarian defense ministry is planning to issue a tender for a fleet of new helicopters later this year for its air arm.

The country has a national requirement for a fleet of light and medium helicopters not only for the air force but also for use by paramilitary organizations for missions such as search and rescue, according to the head of the Hungarian air force, Brig. Gen. Albert Safar.

“We hope to issue a tender for helicopters later this year, we have just had an election ... and a new helicopter fleet is our top priority for the air force,” explained Safar in an interview with Aviation Week at the Swedish Air Force Fan Club on July 13, prior to the Farnborough air show.

Safar would not elaborate on numbers of aircraft or what types were being studied, but the air force has a need to replace the current fleet of 10 Russian-built Mil Mi-17s and Mi-8s, which the air arm is struggling to maintain and get parts for. The shortfall was partially alleviated with the recent arrival of a trio of secondhand Mi-8s from Russia.

Back in December 2011, the U.S. offered to donate 32 former Marine Corps UH-1N Hueys for use by the Hungarian armed forces, but when officials studied the deal and the likely maintenance cost of the aircraft, they reported that the country would be better off buying new, modern helicopters instead, Safar explained.

Last year the air force also unexpectedly retired its fleet of Mi-24 attack helicopters. The aircraft are now in storage. Officials had hoped to upgrade them, but they may now be sold.

The air force is also looking at options to replace its pair of aging Antonov An-26 transport aircraft, but the helicopters will be the first fleet to be renewed.

The country also has great ambitions for its small fleet of Saab JAS 39 Gripens, which are leased from Sweden.  

Hungary has 12 single-seat JAS 39s and a pair of twin-seat JAS 39Ds used for training that entered service in 2006. Currently the air force mainly uses the aircraft for quick-reaction alert, defending the airspace of Hungary but also Northern Slovenia. They also have a limited ground-attack role with the AGM-65 Maverick. But Safar and officials are planning to expand the mission set with a close air support capability with the aim of supporting the Eastern European V4 battle group – made of troops from the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia - with four aircraft by the first quarter of 2016. The capability requires up to four aircraft to be deployed anywhere within 6,000 km (3,700 mi.) of Brussels.

“This will be a challenge for us, not only in terms of pilots but also aircraft availability,” Safar said.

As part of the work up, eight pilots of the 35 available will be trained on the Litening III laser designator pod, use night vision goggles and train with dumb and precision-guided munitions. This training will take place at the same time as Hungary’s first-ever deployment to Lithuania to support the Baltic Air Policing mission for four months during the fourth quarter of 2015, a mission that will require at least four of the 14 aircraft operated by the air force.