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CZECH GRIPEN DEAL IN JEOPARDY

16 Apr 03. The Czech defence ministry is considering buying used supersonic fighter planes to limit the costs of replacing its Soviet-era MiGs next year, with five offers now on the table, a senior official said on Wednesday.

The cash-strapped government has been re-thinking plans to beef up its air defence since severe floods last August forced it to drop plans to buy new Anglo-Swedish Gripen jets and shift funds towards disaster relief. The floods, which caused over $2.0bn in damages, forced the government to scrap the plan to replace MiG-21s with 24 Gripen multirole jets made by Swedish Saab (Stockholm:SAABb.ST – News) in partnership with BAE Systems (London:BA.L – News).

Deputy Defence Minister Jan Vana told Reuters there are currently five offers to sell the country supersonic jets but that only a British offer is in what he called “a more advanced stage”. “There are several offers now from Belgium, Canada, Britain, Turkey and Israel … but some of them are only very preliminary,” said Vana, who is responsible army reforms.

NATO ally Britain has offered the Czechs 14 older F-3 Tornado jets, which should be replaced in the British armed forces in the next few years. “The British offer fits into a concept of wider strategic partnership in defence issues,” Vana said, adding that the ministry would decide on the offer after it gets a feasibility study by the end of month. The government had postponed its decision on the fate of a long-delayed purchase of supersonic fighters until May to get support in the parliament. MPs have resisted numerous attempts to push through financing for the $1.7bn acquisition, which would be the country’s largest military order ever.

Vana said there are no specific numbers of planes given by Israel and another NATO ally, Turkey, but both are offering older F-16s made by U.S. defence contractor Lockheed Martin (NYSE:LMT – News). He did not elaborate on Canadian and Belgian offers, but a source told Reuters recently that Canada proposed 15 used F-18 supersonic fighters made by Boeing (NYSE:BA – News). Belgium made its offer of 24 older F-16s a year ago. But MPs were still focused on the Gripen plan and argued that the planes were too old and would need to be modernised. Czech officials have already said the decisions of its neighbouring countries may also play a role as it looks for the best solution for its air force.

Poland, which joined the NATO security alliance together with the Czech Republic and Hungary in 1999, picked U.S. manufacturer Lockheed Martin to supply 48 combat jets in a $3.5bn deal. Hungary has taken the low-cost route of leasing Gripens to meet its alliance commitments, while NATO invitee Slovakia opted for modernisation of its MiG-29s due to lack of funds.

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