Air force tender in doubt as four bidders pull out


The Czech government's plans to purchase between twenty four and thirty six new supersonic jet fighters for its air force received a double blow this week, as four of the five bidders withdrew from the public tender to sell the jets. Speculation abounds over the reasons for their withdrawal, with allegations that the Social Democrat government's tender was unfair and not transparent. Nick Carey has this report...

There have been disputes for years as to whether the Czech Republic needs new fighters, second hand ones, or any at all. But despite objections at home and abroad, the Czech government went ahead and called a public tender for the jets, with interest shown by manufacturers in both Europe and the United States.

Until this week, there were five bidders for the deal, worth up to 100 billion Czech crowns, or two and a half billion US dollars. But on Wednesday, the US government barred two American companies bidding for the deal, Lockheed Martin and McDonnell-Douglas/Boeing from participating any further. This was followed by the withdrawal of two other bidders, France's Dassault Aviation and EASD on Thursday, leaving just one contender, the British-Swedish consortium, Saab/BAE Systems in the running. Allegations have since arisen that the US government and the other bidders feel that the tender was unfairly weighted in favour of Saab/BAE Systems.

Commentator Jan Urban feels that it's not certain whether the tender was not transparent, but that the Social Democrat government has had a clear favourite candidate for a long time:

"It's hard to say, but what is clear is that from the very beginning the Social Democrat government made it clear that they are more sympathetic to the Swedish-British Gripen consortium and this is now the only contender. Probably the others have received some other information that made them decide to leave the contest."

Shadow Defence Minister Petr Necas of the main opposition Civic Democrats says that with all the speculation surrounding the issue, it is difficult to know if the tender is unfair, but he believes that it is pointless to continue with just one bidder:

"I can't imagine a situation where the government could continue with this tender, because it would be a very strange situation to have only one participant and to try and call it a selection process, because in fact it's not possible to call it a competition. I think it's necessary to cancel the tender immediately."

Whether or not the public tender for the purchase of the jets was on the level, commentator Jan Urban feels that this will not help the reputation of the Czechs, already damaged by the poor state of its armed forces, any good:

"It is definitely not a welcome gesture. It's harmful just at a time when the Czech military is trying to improve its stance with its NATO allies. It really couldn't have come at a worse time."