U.S. Defence Secretary steps into fray over fighter jets

Gripen jet fighter

The U.S. Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld stepped into the fray over the Czech jet fighter issue on Thursday, warning his Czech counterpart Jaroslav Tvrdik not to jeopardise the future of the Czech armed forces by buying dozens of new fighter jets which it was ill able to afford. Mr Rumsfeld's comments come as a further blow to the tender, which has sharply divided Czech politicians. The Czechs are planning to spend several billion dollars on up to three dozen fighters, but four of the five consortiums bidding for the tender pulled out days before the deadline, leaving just the British-Swedish venture BAE systems-Saab still in the race. Two of the four bidders were American firms - Boeing and Lockheed - so were Mr Rumsfeld's comments merely a question of sour grapes? A question my colleague Rob Cameron put to Jiri Kominek, the Prague correspondent of the leading defence publication, Jane's Defence Weekly.

"Well it could be interrupted as such. The Americans have been suggesting that since December, when the former U.S. ambassador John Shuttuck suggested to the former Defence Minister Vladimir Vetchy that the Czechs should reconsider it. In fact if you look at it, of the two American companies Boeing and Lockheed, Lockheed would have had a bigger chance of succeeding but Boeing wouldn't, because their product is out of the Czechs' price range. At the end of the day, the Zeman government isn't particularly American-friendly, everyone knows that."

The million-dollar question - do you think the Czech Republic does need new jet fighters?

"Well, that depends who you ask. If you speak to a military person, he'll tell you of course they do, but speak to an economist and he'll say you at this time it's absolutely ludicrous. I personally think at this point, given the state of the Czech economy and especially the military budget and the other needs that are present, that it's not a priority at this point."

And do you think the Czechs can afford to ignore gentle hints from NATO - 'don't buy jets, concentrate on your ground forces instead'?

"Not only ground forces - there are so many things that need to be reorganised. Assets need to be sold off that are just sitting on the side, rotting away, property and such. I think that they should actually listen to NATO, yes. There are so many other more pressing needs, buying fighters at this point is an absolute luxury. Never mind what Washington says - of course there might be a hidden agenda there as far as making a sale - but as far as NATO's concerned, I would think that it's probably fairly accurate."

BAE Systems-Saab have rigorously denied accusations that the deal wasn't transparent...

"Well of course they have!!!"

Do you think it was?

"That it was transparent? Well, again, from a legal standpoint, let's prove it [wasn't]. Everyone's saying it [wasn't], but let's prove it. Until it's proven, what can you do?"