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Czech Republic: NATO Chief Arrives As Czechs Consider Expensive Fighter Jet Purchase

By David Reed

NATO Secretary-General George Robertson is spending today and tomorrow in the Czech capital Prague. One of the issues he will be considering is whether NATO-member Czech Republic needs to buy new supersonic fighters to upgrade its fleet or if the money might better be spent on military reform. RFE/RL correspondent David Reed reports both NATO officials and the country's own finance minister doubt the wisdom of spending money on the fighters.

Prague, 21 February 2001 (RFE/RL) -- There is no question the Czech Republic needs to modernize its air force, which last year lost four pilots in three crashes of Soviet-built MiGs and other aging jet fighters.

The question that Czech politicians and military leaders are now grappling with is what kind of jet can the country afford to buy and still manage other military reforms.

The Czech Republic joined NATO in March 1999 along with Hungary and Poland, the first former Soviet bloc countries accepted into the alliance. All three countries have been under pressure from NATO to modernize their military equipment and get their forces in fighting shape.

NATO officials say the Czech Republic has done a good job paring down its armed forces and is spending the recommended amount of money on the military, about 2.2 percent of the country's gross national product.

NATO also gives the Czech military high marks for its performance in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo.

But last month, the Czech government took a giant step toward modernization. It asked aircraft manufacturers to submit bids for supplying between 24 and 36 supersonic jets. The bill would be close to $2.8 billion over several years.

The potential bidders include the British/Swedish consortium BAE Systems, with the JAS-39 Gripen; Dassault, with the French Mirage 2000-5; the EADS consortium with the Eurofighter; and two U.S. companies, Lockheed Martin with the F-16 and Boeing with the F/A-18.

As part of the deal, the company that wins the bid would be required to invest up to 150 percent of the purchase price into the Czech economy, a practice known as offset investing.

Czech Defense Ministry spokesman Milan Repka said the air force would be unable to adequately defend its air space without supersonic fighters. And Czech Prime Minister Milos Zeman told a Czech radio station this week that he had received a letter from British Prime Minister Tony Blair recommending the purchase of the British/Swedish Gripen fighters. But news that the government is considering buying the new planes has prompted criticism of the decision.

Karel Kovanda, the Czech ambassador to NATO, tells RFE/RL that the Czech government is under no pressure to buy new supersonic aircraft instead of used or leased aircraft.

"Not only is there no pressure from NATO on the Czech Republic to buy these aircraft, I would say quite the contrary. On a number of occasions, alliance officials have expressed their doubt, and even surprise, wondering about the wisdom of buying these extraordinarily expensive aircraft at this particular time."

Kovanda says the Czechs have had a run of bad procurement contracts that is depleting the military budget. The military has received only six of 21 new subsonic fighters from the Czech company Aero Vodochody because of development problems and ballooning costs.

"The supply of the aircraft is now way behind schedule. The contract overall is such that the investment by the Czech military is pretty much gobbling up an overwhelming percentage of the overall army investment budget."

Czech Finance Minister Pavel Mertlik warned in December the country would probably be unable to pay off bonds if they were issued to cover the purchase of the jets.

And Petr Necas, the head of the Czech Parliament's Defense Committee, says frankly that the country cannot afford the planes.

That opinion has been seconded by many outside the country.

Just before leaving Prague last month, U.S. Ambassador to the Czech Republic John Shattuck said the purchase of new fighter planes could break the military budget and make it impossible to make other needed reforms.

NATO's supreme commander in Europe, General Joseph Ralston, said in Prague last month it would be a bad idea to spend too much money on jet fighters and not enough on training and necessary equipment. For example, the Czech army was unable to supply enough parachutes to a unit assigned to NATO's fast reaction forces last month.

The aircraft companies will have until July to submit their offers, and the Czech cabinet hopes to chose a supplier by October. But the government could change the tender or reject the results. And there are alternatives for upgrading the air force.

Hungary made a preliminary decision earlier this month to re-equip its air force with used American F-16s for the time being rather than buy new aircraft.

And Poland decided to abandon plans to buy 60 expensive fighter jets and is now trying to lease used jets.