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NATO: Membership Has Its Price--Buying New Arms

By Kate Connolly

Prague, 22 November 1996 (RFE/RL) -- It's difficult to find fault with the blanket of security that NATO wants to throw over Central Europe. But everything has its price.

For potential Eastern European members of the alliance, this means they will have to face issues like re-equipping and modernizing their forces and integrating their weapons systems with those of NATO partners. Such moves, needless to say, involve an enormous amount of expensive equipment -- and Western companies will be seeking as much of this business as possible.

NATO has long been developing policies of weapons compatibility and interchangability. Highly necessary when one considers that, even with something as basic as ammunition, NATO's members were for decades using items which their immediate partner armies could not use.

This drive within NATO for compatibility does not necessarily shut out the many Eastern European arms producers which used to build for the Warsaw Pact. Many of these enterprises have adapted their products to meet NATO standards and are actively promoting their wares.

But most observers see the advantage being with the powerful Western suppliers, often government-backed, who can field a vast array of sophisticated equipment already in service or planned for service in the NATO heartland. The Westerners' cards are even stronger in the case of major systems such as fighter planes, which formerly the Eastern Europeans would have obtained from the Soviet Union.

In contracts worth hundreds of millions of dollars, Poland is soon expected to buy 50 F-18 fighter planes made by America's McDonald Douglas, and the Czech Republic will probably buy 30 of the same.

As for Hungary, McDonald Douglas has been vying with French, Swedish and British plane makers for Hungarian tenders, but so far they've all been put on hold. Apart from fighters, NATO has recommended that Hungary buy new radar systems, and anti-aircraft and anti-tank missiles.

Hungarian officials say that military contractors from America and Western Europe are pushy and are always knocking on the door. But according to Zoltan Martinus, Hungary's director of NATO affairs, it's just a sign of a healthy free market.

"The most important thing is that even though constructors may be pushy, none of the NATO governments has been pushy on any of the potential equipment purchase areas", he says.

Martinus also says its ridiculous to think that any Central European country would start an arms race, but if it did happen, Hungary's position would be weak. He says it spends 25 percent less than the Czech Republic on its defense budget, and 50 percent less than Poland.

In an interview last week, Hungary's foreign minister, Laszlo Kovacs, said that prospective NATO membership for Hungary is linked much more closely to the issues of democracy and the settlement of ethnic disputes with its neighbors than with the settlement of military compatibility.