British Defence Secretary lobbies heavily for Gripen jet fighters British Defence Secretary lobbies heavily for Gripen jet fighters

L-159 fighters

The British Defence Secretary Geoff Hoon arrived in Prague on Monday for a series of talks with senior Czech officials, to discuss the so-called war against terrorism, NATO enlargement and plans for a radical shake up of the Czech armed forces. The visit was a routine one, and nothing groundbreaking has emerged from negotiations - so far at least. But Mr Hoon did find time for a none-too-subtle plug for the British-Swedish consortium Saab-BAE Systems, who are bidding to supply the Czech air force with new supersonic jet fighters. Rob Cameron reports.

The Czech government is due to decide later this month whether to buy several dozen supersonic JAS 39 Gripen fighters. Saab-BAE Systems, which makes the Gripen, is the only bidder left in the tender, making it a simple one-horse race. But it's not yet a done deal - there are still several issues to be resolved before Prague can go ahead. The Czech air force is already having severe problems with its fleet of subsonic L-159 fighters. Jiri Kominek is the Prague correspondent for the leading defence publication Jane's Defence Weekly:

"Just a week ago or two weeks ago, Mr Tvrdik was heavily criticising the 159 programme, whining that he doesn't have any money for training or for anything else. Now they're going to do a 180-degree turn and buy supersonic fighters, which are infinitely more expensive than subsonic 159s. I just don't see how they're going to justify it."

Buying new supersonic jets will cost billions of crowns. The government is planning an ambitious offset programme - in which British and Swedish firms will invest the cost of the planes back into the Czech economy. But offset programme or no offset programme, the country has limited financial resources. Prague is planning a complete overhaul of its armed forces - replacing conscription with a fully professional force by 2007. That will cost lots of money. Critics in the opposition say the country simply can't afford to buy new planes and new soldiers at the same time. Jiri Kominek says he's inclined to agree with them.

"The only way I can see them procuring the fighters is if BAE Systems and the governments of the UK and Sweden were to somehow pay for the planes and ask for the money say 50 years down the road! But I just don't see that as being very realistic. A country this size with a budget of its size can't afford that many military programmes simultaneously. It's impossible."

So which will the Czech government choose? Planes or soldiers? Jiri Kominek says Defence Minister Jaroslav Tvrdik at least knows where his priorities lie.

"All the information that I have at this time indicates that he's more in favour of a professional army. Mt Tvrdik's a young man who's got at least another 20-25 years potentially in public life, and I don't think he wants to sabotage his future political career for the sake of indebting the country by buying something that takes forever to pay for!"