The Czech Republic, an acknowledged specialist in the defence and aeronautics industry

L-200 Morava, the first aircraft designed by Aircraft Industries (Let Kunovice) in 1957. Source: Let Kunovice’s marketing team

CELIA PÉREZ CARRASCOSA

Industry has accompanied this Central European country’s development since its beginnings. Within this sector, arms and aircraft production has been of great importance since historical times. Communist Czechoslovakia was one of the world’s leading arms manufacturers and exporters. However, long before that, during the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Czech Lands already had considerable experience in weapons manufacturing.

As for aeronautics, it was a nascent Czechoslovakia that initiated research and production of airborne transport. During communism this field became very important and its talent and efforts made the country one of the leading manufacturers and exporters of these products internationally. The L-410 and the L-29 Delfín stand out among its legendary aircraft.

Defence manufacturing, on the other hand, includes heavy weapons such as machine guns and combat vehicles such as tanks. It is also common to read or hear news about the leading countries in this field, including the USA, Russia and France. However, ammunition and technology, such as radio communication systems, are of vital importance for big arms. It is precisely in this field that the Czech Republic has a great advantage.

Czech Lands, arms supplier of the Austro-Hungarian Empire

The Austrian Empire (1804-1867) spanned several territories, including the Czech Kingdom (known as the Kingdom of Bohemia in Western Europe). This empire welcomed the Industrial Revolution with open arms and gradually industrialised. The Czech Lands were one of the fastest moving members in this sphere.

In 1867 Austria and Hungary formally established the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which lasted until 1918. In contrast to Austria, Hungary was not highly industrialised, but both gradually developed and improved this sector.

One of the first Czech (and one of the first in Europe) brand-name companies to be founded was Škoda Works (Škodovka in Czech) in Pilsen. On 12th June 1869, Emil Škoda bought a factory from the Austrian, Ernst Anton Franz de Paula von Waldstein-Wartenberg, who had established it in 1859. Thus was born the legendary Škoda, predecessor of Škoda Auto and Škoda Transportation.

Jan Vaňata, an official at the Pilsen Regional State Archive, explains that the company’s first products were boilers and steam engines, water turbines, engineering equipment for breweries, sugar factories, steel foundries etc.

Later, in 1889, Škoda began manufacturing weapons and supplying artillery and ammunition to the Austro-Hungarian Empire. “The first to be produced were the Škoda M-1893 machine gun and the L-44 naval gun” Vaňata points out. Moreover, “from 1902 onwards, this company was the sole supplier of armaments to the Austro-Hungarian Navy,” he notes. Apart from this, the company manufactured naval, coastal and fortification guns, field and mountain guns, mortars and howitzers. It is also important to note that it had an ammunition factory in the Czech town of Bolevec.

Ammunition manufactured by Škodovka. Source: Škoda Works in historical photographs

It is worth noting that Škoda not only supplied armaments to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, but also exported its products. The Pilsen Regional Archive records that most of the importing states were European, such as Spain, the Netherlands and Albania, but also China, Turkey, South Africa, Brazil and Ecuador, amongst others.

On the other hand, the First World War brought a change in its supply to the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Vaňata stresses that the production of naval guns for the Empire, which had prevailed until then, was replaced by field and mountain guns, mortars and especially heavy machine guns. In addition, “from 1917 onwards, it was the supplier of all weapons larger than 104 mm calibre and 70% of all weapons smaller than 100 mm calibre to the Austro-Hungarian army,” he explains. According to Vaňata, between 1910 and 1918, the company produced 12,693 weapons and ammunition parts for the defunct empire.

42 cm calibre howitzer manufactured by Škoda in 1918. Source: Škoda Works in historical photographs

The Pilsen Regional Archive recalls that the Czech Lands was a part of the Austrian Empire and was therefore an administrative and fiscal unit of the Austrian part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. As for taxes, it paid them in the Czech Kingdom, as it was registered in the Czech town of Pilsen.

Vaňata points out that after the foundation of Czechoslovakia in 1918 the firm’s largest customer was the Czechoslovak Army. In fact, from that year onwards, Škodovka produced field guns for the land force. Later, in the 1930s, they began to produce anti-aircraft and anti-tank guns, which were also exported. “The most important products were still fortification weapons, armoured equipment and, of course, ammunition,” Vaňata stresses. In addition, Škodovka started tank production in 1931.

LT-35 tank designed by Škoda in 1935. Source: Škoda Works in historical photographs

Czechoslovakia’s strong commitment to aeronautics

The establishment of the new state brought with it the aviation industry. In 1919, the first aviation companies were founded: Aero, Avia and Letov. This industry began to expand gradually throughout the 1930s. One of the new companies was Let Kunovice (Aircraft Industries) founded in 1936 in Kunovice, a village in Moravian. The Moravian company’s marketing team explains that because most of Czechoslovak industry was in Bohemia, in 1934 the government planned to build major factories in Moravia and the western border of Slovakia, beyond the reach of the Germans. This movement of air and armaments production to the aforementioned areas recognised as the first wave of eastward relocation of the defence industry[1].

The airline company states that construction began in 1936 and operation of the plant in 1937. In addition to the factory, an airport was built. The company recalls that it is the daughter company of Avia, which in turn belonged to Škodovka. They say that before the German occupation on 15th March 1939, Let Kunovice repaired and modified aircraft manufactured by Avia Praha, especially the Avia B-534, fighters of the Czechoslovak Armed Forces. “After the repairs, Avia Praha pilots tested the aircraft at Kunovice airport,” the Moravian company notes.

The Second World War                 

During the German occupation and World War II, Czechoslovakia produced many weapons and much ammunition for the German army. For example, Vaňata points out that from 1938 onwards the production of Czechoslovak guns was gradually replaced by mass production of German guns and other weapons. “And in 1942 mass production under licence took over completely,” he explains.

According to the Pilsen Regional Archive, between 1939 and 1945, Škoda manufactured 23,790 cannons for the German army, 17,900,000 rounds of ammunition and 7,500,000 fuses. As well as this, the historic company manufactured 1,140 guns for export, which were imported by Yugoslavia (617 guns), Romania (252), Bulgaria (68), Slovakia (58), Italy (36), Finland (27), Iran (26), Afghanistan (26), Hungary (12) and the Netherlands (12).

The Communist Era

The 1946 parliamentary elections in Czechoslovakia gave victory to the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia (KSČ). The prime minister was Klement Gottwald and the president was Edvard Beneš, who was not a communist.

During the communist period Czechoslovakia continued to develop its industry. It was also one of the most significant supplier states to the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance (CMEA). One of the most important industries was the arms industry. The communist government used this industry to equalise the Czech and Slovak economies[2].

The 1950s saw the second wave of relocation of this production to the East, which established more heavy weapons companies in Slovakia. This was one of the reasons why Škoda Works ceased arms production in 1953 and the Slovak company Konštrukta Trenčín took its place. The third and final wave developed in the 1960s. During that decade, the easternmost part of Slovakia began to produce large-calibre ammunition and explosives[3].

In the course of the 1950s, this industry recovered from a slight decline after the war[4]. However, many of the products they produced were licensed Soviet weapons. For example, between 1954 and 1962 Czechoslovakia produced 3,400 Soviet MiG-15 fighters. 30% of the supplies went to its own Armed Forces, while 70% was for export. In fact, the share of arms in total exports ranged between 7 and 8% per year.

In the 1960s, the specialisation of the Warsaw Pact countries was defined and Czechoslovakia was assigned the production of aircraft and armoured vehicles. From then on, Czechoslovakia manufactured numerous products of this type. Notable among them were the L-29 Delfín and the L-39 Albatros, both from Aero. The Závody ťažkého strojárstva (ZŤS) plants in Slovakia produced tanks and heavy weapons.

Aero L-29 Dolphin, Fuerza Aérea ACR
L-29 Delfín. Source: Wikipedia

Let Kunovice states that Avia Prague and its subsidiaries, like the company itself, were nationalised on 27th December 1945. From 1948, it was part of the national company LET. Later, in 1948, it was renamed LET, the national company of Kunovice.

The first aircraft produced entirely at this Moravian company was the sporty Zlín Z-22 Junák. “Since 1949, LET has produced 170 aircraft of this type, which were also exported to Romania and Belgium,” says Let Kunovice. The Z-124 Galánka and LF-109 Pionýr were also produced. In the 1950s, a new plant was built at the factory and the Soviet Yakovlev Yak-11 aircraft was produced under licence, which, in addition to being used in Czechoslovakia, was exported to 20 countries, including Egypt, China, Hungary, Austria and the USSR.

L-13 Blaník. Source: Let Kunovice’s marketing team

A very important date for the Moravian company is 1957, when Let Kunovice not only produced, but also, under the guidance and supervision of engineer Ladislav Smrček, designed its first aircraft: the L-200 Morava, an air taxi, which in 1964 was exported to nineteen countries. In 1958, production of the L-13 Blaník also began. It is still in production today, and more than 2,600 of these have been sold all over the world. Another of its aircraft was produced in 1963, the Z-37 Čmelák. In addition, between 1963 and 1973, the company produced 1,700 L-29 Delfín, developed by Aero Vodochody.

In 1966, Smrček designed and produced one more aircraft, the famous L-410 Turbolet, and its first test flight being in April 1969. It was a small transport aircraft for nineteen passengers. “Its main customer was the Soviet Aeroflot, but there was also interest from other operators on four continents,” says Let Kunovice’s marketing team. It is worth noting that this aircraft is one of the country’s best known and most exported. In fact, it is still being produced and sold in different versions. “In 2015, a prototype of a modernised L-410 took off for the first time. With all the improvements made, the L-410 NG reaches a new level of comfort and safety,” the Czech company explains. Let Kunovice also produced the L-610, the largest aircraft designed and manufactured in Czechoslovakia. However, “due to the economic situation after 1989, it was impossible to complete its development”, the Moravian company highlights.

L-410 NG. Source: Let Kunovice’s marketing team

The Velvet Revolution

In 1989 the Velvet Revolution took place, which peacefully ended totalitarianism and elevated Václav Havel to the presidency through the ballot box. However, the return of democracy struck a severe blow to the arms industry.

Jiří Hynek, president of the Association of the Czech Defence and Security Industry (AOBP its Czech acronym, or DSIA in English), points out that during communism all these companies were grouped under a single command: the government. “After 1989, most of the companies wanted to be independent and many of them split into smaller ones,” says Hynek. In his opinion, this was detrimental to the sector because “the military and arms industry has to have one voice, as it is easier to establish relations and do business abroad,” he explains. For this reason, AOBP was founded in 1997, as companies realised that they needed to cooperate and be united.

Czechoslovakia and its successors lost interest in this market after 1989. In general, it was thought that weapons were not as necessary as they were because the world was supposedly a safer place. “Every revolution is accompanied by enthusiasm and naivety. Foreign countries can use this very skilfully. While our politicians were painting the tank pink, foreign competition was cleverly occupying the markets we were liberating,” Hynek points out. Let Kunovice stresses that the dissolution of CMEA in 1991 led to a significant decline in Czechoslovak exports. It also agrees with Hynek that competitiveness was very aggressive after that date. According to the president of AOBP, in 2000, during the government of Miloš Zeman, Prague regained interest in this business.

Finally, the separation of Czechoslovakia significantly damaged this market, as Slovakia and the Czech Lands shared the production tasks. “We can say that Slovakia was in charge of hardware, tanks and heavy weapons, and the Czech Republic was in charge of software, technology, small weapons and ammunition,” says Hynek. The process of converting this industry to civilian production was not very detrimental to the Prague government, “because it is easier to adapt technology and electronics for civilian use than tanks or explosives,” stresses Hynek.

From heavy weapons to technology

The AOBP president explains that the main goal of the association is to create optimal conditions for research, development, production and marketing services with defence and security technology and materials. Moreover, he stresses that within the Czech borders they strengthen the position of Czech producers. “Abroad, we help to introduce Czech products to the armed forces of those countries.”

He also notes that exports have increased tenfold in the last fifteen years. Hynek highlights that the defence and security industry has greatly improved its quality, modernity and production volume. He points out that they export to more than 100 countries around the world and emphasises that “thanks to the diversification of production, there is no country on which we depend for exports”. Its main customers are the USA, Indonesia, Vietnam and Iraq. In Europe, they are Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Italy and Germany.

He indicates that land equipment, such as military trucks, account for 40% of exports in this sector. In second place is aviation and aviation equipment, which reaches 25%. “The rest is divided equally between technology and electronics, ammunition, propellants and small arms,” says Hynek.

According to the AOBP President, the Czech Republic has no intention of returning to the production of heavy weapons or combat vehicles. On the contrary, it wants to continue researching and perfecting its military technology and electronics. He cites the passive monitoring systems produced by the company ERA Pardubice, as being world leading in this field.

As a wise Spanish saying goes: “he who had, retained”. This Slavic country has made a brilliant comeback on the international defence and security market. It has done so thanks to its experience in arms and aircraft production. A tradition that Prague has been able to maintain and develop with the help of its professionals throughout the country.


Esta obra está bajo una Licencia Creative Commons Atribución 4.0 Internacional.

[1] Český obranný průmysl v minulosti a dnes (1) Hospodárské Noviny 04/12/1998 https://archiv.ihned.cz/c1-967154-cesky-obranny-prumysl-v-minulosti-a-dnes-1

[2] The defense industry in The Czech Republic Radio Prague International 28/11/2002 https://english.radio.cz/defense-industry-czech-republic-8068404

[3] Český obranný průmysl v minulosti a dnes (1) Hospodárské Noviny 04/12/1998 https://archiv.ihned.cz/c1-967154-cesky-obranny-prumysl-v-minulosti-a-dnes-1

[4] Český obranný průmysl v minulosti a dnes (1) Hospodárské Noviny 12/07/1998 https://archiv.ihned.cz/c1-967154-cesky-obranny-prumysl-v-minulosti-a-dnes-1

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