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I probably shouldn't tell you this story. But I will. A few years ago, I had a friend in Prague called Nick. We called him Nick the Greek; he wasn't Greek at all - he was half Irish and half French - but he had a beard like Demis Roussos and once went to an evening of Greek dancing. Forever after he was Nick the Greek.

Nick, like me, was an English teacher. Most of us had fairly boring jobs - my most glamorous students were a hospital supplies executive and a Lego salesman. But Nick was lucky. Nick got a job teaching the Czech Air Force.

His lessons took place at the military air base in Kbely, on the northern outskirts of Prague. My Lego salesman lived in Kbely village, so I know the area well. I know exactly where Nick would get off the bus, and can still picture the entrance to the air base. Every day Nick would alight at a stop called "Military Airfield", walk 100 metres up the road, and present himself at the main entrance. A military policeman would carefully scrutinise his ID card, the barrier would be raised, and in he went.

One day, after about three weeks of this routine, Nick noticed another, less prominent entrance, this time just a few metres away from the bus stop. It led to the car park. Behind the car park he could clearly see his classroom. But there was no security at this entrance, no military policeman, no barrier. "I wonder," he thought to himself, "what would happen if I just walked through?" So he gave it a try, walking unchallenged into one of Prague's biggest military installations. And he did it the next day. And the next day and the day after that. He was never stopped.

When he got inside, the air base was hardly a paragon of military efficiency. Nick told us his students - trainee pilots - would sit around all day drinking beer and playing cards. There was no fuel for the MiG jets they were supposed to be learning to fly, and half of the planes were grounded with technical faults anyway. "You know what?" he confided merrily, beer in hand and his beard white from chalk dust, "this country is completely undefended!"

It is this sorry state of affairs that successive Czech defence ministers have been trying to change. With, it must be said, little success. The MiGs now have fuel, but they still fall from the sky with alarming regularity, and more than a dozen pilots have died in crashes over the last decade. Sometimes the pilots themselves were to blame - a result of poor discipline and a lack of flying hours. Sometimes the accidents were caused by technical failure. Whatever the reason, senior commanders describe the Czech Air Force as deep in crisis.

To resolve that crisis, the cabinet approved a plan this week to buy new Gripen jet fighters, costing billions of crowns. The Gripens will replace the ageing fleet of MiGs, to be decommissioned in 2004. Questions have been raised over the transparency of the tender - the biggest military contract in Czech history - as well as the financing of the purchase, and also whether the country really needs a super modern air force when it faces no credible military threat.

The government has brushed aside those concerns, and has submitted the deal to parliament for approval. That approval looks very likely, and if all goes well, Czech pilots could be taxiing down the runway in their brand new planes in 2004. The Czech Republic - a new NATO member - will be able to contribute fully to the defence of Europe's skies, without worrying the planes are going to fall out of them. And, one hopes, never again will you be able to stroll into Kbely Air Base through a side entrance.