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Russia: MIG Manufacturer Seeks A Share Of NATO Skies

Moscow, 23 January 1997 (RFE/RL) -- The manufacturer of the Russian MIG fighters says it aims to capture a share of the skies over Central Europe -- not by invasion but through commercial sales.

MAPO, which makes the formidable MIG-29 jet, projects itself as confident that it can sell even to prospective NATO members in the region against fierce competition from American and other western companies.

MAPO spokesman Vitaly Zotov told RFE/RL that his company expects to gain "several contracts" in Eastern and Central Europe "definitely before the end of the century."

The two big U.S. manufacturers McDonnell Douglas, with the F-18, and Lockheed Martin with the F-16 are equally determined that they will win whatever sales are going. So the stage is set for a fierce commercial battle between the companies which armed the former cold war rivals.

Also actively seeking to re-arm the old Warsaw Pact members are Saab-Scania of Sweden and Dassault of France. At stake: some $8 billion for about 200 fighter planes to Hungary, the Czech Republic and Poland alone, quite apart from other possible purchasers in the region.

What are the chances realistically of Russian manufacturers MAPO and Sukhoi winning a share of the sales on these markets?

On the negative side must be counted an important psychological rather than commercial factor. Despite the stern opposition of Moscow, a number of countries in the region are likely to become new members of an expanded NATO alliance. There is therefore an almost irresistable logic for them to buy the same top-grade armaments already possessed by established NATO members. It makes sense in terms of weapons standardisation, and as a powerful signal of communality.

Add to that the unblemished technical reputation of the Western products, the opportunity to gain access to state-of-the art technology and the certainty of generous offset deals. Under the offset deals, the purchasing countries would do much assembly or parts manufacture themselves, thus strengthening their own industries.

Despite the strong Western hand, MAPO's Zotov preserves his optimism. He shrugs and says "This is one of the most promising markets for us."

His number one card is money -- or rather the lack of it, in that the prospective customers don't have billions of dollars on hand for new arms purchases. None of the manufacturers reveal detail costing for their aircraft, but its certain the Russians have the inside track on pricing. Our correspondent notes Russian reports that Malaysia paid more to buy eight American F-18s than it paid for 18 MIG-29s.

"And we are ready to consider any form of payment," Zotov says. The Russian arms industry is skilled in clinching barter deals from the old Soviet days when equipment was supplied to countries as far-flung as the Middle East and Africa. In Europe, Russia still owes millions dollars to a number of its former Warsaw Pact allies, including Hungary. Budapest has already accepted MIG-29s in 1994 in barter for debt settlement, and the others might be tempted to do the same.

Zotov says MAPO is also ready to help modernize hundreds of older MIG jets, such as MIG-21, still serving in air forces of Eastern and Central European countries. In the past MAPO has conducted one sweeping modernization like that in India updating that country's MIG-21 from second to fourth generation fighters.

Conscious of the quality question, MAPO also insists it is ready to provide adequate servicing in any country willing to buy its products.

As to the respective performances of the jets, Russian aviation analysts rate the technical reliability of a properly-maintained MIG-29 as higher than that of comparable western models. Western analysts, however, while acknowledging the MIG's virtues, point to what they see as weak engine design impairing the fighter's top combat performance.

As for the psychological factor, the Russians don't see that as insurmountable. They note there is a total of 24 MAPO-made MIG-29 fighters already flying under NATO colours, namely in the German Luftwaffe, and that they regularly participate in NATO exercises. West Germany inherited them from communist East Germany after the demolition of the Berlin Wall.

Our correspondents writes that the MIG-29 was the second most wanted fighter internationally from 1992 to 1995. During this period 114 MIG-29s worth an estimated $2.8 billion were supplied to Iran, Hungary, Slovakia, India and Malaysia while Lockheed Martin sold 248 F-16's worth an estimated $9.4 billion to Taiwan, Greece, Turkey, Singapore and Finland. More recently MAPO sold new fighters to India which now has a total of more than 60 MIG-29s.

Mapo also has lines other than fighters. Last year it sold $40 million worth of Mi-17 helicopters to Columbia in Latin America. Reports say helicopter deals are also being negotiated with Canada and Slovakia.