Government goes ahead with billion-dollar air force tender

JAS 39 Grippen, photo

The government announced on Monday it was going ahead with a controversial plan to buy 24 new supersonic jets for the Czech Air Force. A Defence Ministry spokesman said negotiations would soon be underway with the British-Swedish consortium BAE-Systems/Saab to supply 24 Gripen fighters at a cost of some 50 billion Czech crowns, which is around 1.4 billion U.S. dollars. But many critics say the purchase - which must still be approved by parliament - is an extravagant gesture the country can ill afford. Rob Cameron has more.

The JAS 39 Gripen is a fourth generation supersonic aircraft, a highly advanced jet fighter developed in the 1990s. The new planes are decades ahead of the country's decrepit fleet of MiG 21s - more than a dozen pilots have died in a string of MiG crashes over the last decade, and the remaining planes will be decommissioned in 2004. The Gripen is still something of an unknown quantity - the plane is used by the Swedish and South African air forces, but the aircraft has never seen combat experience. Hungary, like the Czech Republic a new member of NATO, has signed up to buy 14.

The Czech government says the purchase will be affordable - although it will take 15 years to pay back the 50 billion crowns, and the total interest will be a staggering 15 billion crowns. The cabinet also envisages an ambitious offset programme, in which British and Swedish firms will invest 150 percent of the price tag back into the Czech Republic. Despite this, critics say the country simply cannot afford such extravagance, especially seeing as the cabinet has also approved another ambitious military spending programme: the creation of a fully professional army by 2007.

And others are left scratching their heads at the logic of it all. Where, they say, is the military threat facing the Czech Republic? That's a question I put earlier to Defence Ministry spokesman Milan Repka:

"Can I ask you a question? Did anyone believe before September 11th that there would be a terrorist attack on the Twin Towers? The issue of Czech security is a highly complex one, but one fact remains graphically clear: in 2004, when we decommission our MiGs, the Czech Republic will no longer have supersonic aircraft to defend its airspace."

That's an argument that few MPs in parliament will have the stomach to question. So it looks like in a few years' time, Czech pilots will finally get what they've wanted for years: new supersonic jet aircraft.