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Eastern Europe: Fighter Plane Makers Strive For Mega-Dollar Orders

Warsaw, 27 December 1996 (RFE/RL) -- The Polish Air Force, which is preparing itself for future NATO membership, is now pondering an extremely expensive defense decision, namely what aircraft will serve as its main fighter into the next century.

There are a number of western suppliers jostling for the order, which will be worth hundreds of millions of dollars. And that's only one of the orders which will come from East Europe in the next few years: Hungary and the Czech Republic are expected also to dump their old Soviet-era MiGs in favour advanced western equipment. They too are prospective NATO members

In all, the East Europeans are expected to spend some $8 billion on 200 aircraft. No manufacturer wants to be left out of such a bonanza, and many are actively lobbying and demonstrating their equipment around the region.

The Americans, with their powerful military-industrial complex, are at the forefront of the activity, but France and Sweden are also competing strongly, and the Russians are offering their newest equipment.

An RFE/RL correspondent in Warsaw reports that several U.S. fighters, including the potent but cost-effective F-18 Hornet, have been demonstrated to Polish pilots and defense officials lately at military airfields in Deblin, Poznan, Warsaw or Slupsk.

The F-18's maker, McDonnell Douglas Corporation, is lobbying hard to get its model accepted across the board in East Europe, which would be not only a major coup in financial terms, but would help NATO's arms standardization policy.

In Warsaw, the defense ministry is not saying much on record. But according to sources it has set basic outlines for weapons acquisition until 2002, and these guidelines foresee the purchase "very soon" of up to 30 of the most advanced fighter planes.

McDonnell Douglas, one of the world's largest plane manufacturers, says it's ready for an immediate start on planning for the final assembly in Poland of the most up-to-date F-18 version. That word comes from Gary Bud Mitchell, deputy chairman of McDonnell Douglas, who was in Warsaw earlier this month to open a representative office. His comments were meant as a response to Polish demands that any foreign jet order must include large-scale contracting of parts manufacture and services to Polish companies. Poland has much spare capacity at military factories dating from the Warsaw Pact days, even if these facilities are outdated and in need of modernization.

Mitchell assured journalists that his company is ready to examine the issue of Polish manufacturing capabilities -- as opposed to assembly capabilities -- very carefully. Mitchell said Poland has experience in fighter plane production, and has had some remarkable achievements in this field.

Our correspondent notes that McDonnell Douglas has co-assembly agreements with other F-18 customers, for instance Finland and Switzerland. In Finland, there are 57 F-18's being assembled at Finnish facilities out of a total of 64 such planes ordered. Switzerland is assembling 32 out of the 34 units ordered.

At the same time, of course, Polish officials are in contact with other possible suppliers, such as America's Lockheed Martin, Swedish Saab, French Mirage and Russian producers of the MiG-29 and Su-27.

A basic issue remains the financing of the purchase, whatever the model. Our correspondent points out that to come up with the money that's needed, taxes would have to be raised or a special national collection levied. New toys for the military never come cheap, but at least Poland is determined to benefit from a production agreement which means a major transfer of skills and technology.