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Slovakia lowers sights on jet fighter purchase


Thursday April 4, 9:23 AM EST
 

BRATISLAVA, April 4 (Reuters) - Slovakia expects to launch a tender sometime after September elections to buy 18 fighter jets, less than previously signalled, to replace its aging Soviet-era fleet, a senior official said on Thursday. The long-delayed tender is part of Slovakia's plan to modernise its armed forces as it seeks to secure an invitation to join NATO at the alliance's November summit in Prague.

"We are expecting to buy 18 multi-purpose combat jets," Defence Minister Jozef Stank told a news conference during a visit by Swedish Defence Minister Bjoern von Sydow.

"We will only make the basic decision on the modernisation of Slovakia's Air Force, however, after the vote and then after the alliance's summit."

Slovak Army Chief-of-Staff Milan Cerovsky said in February the government planned to buy 28 supersonic jets for between 35 and 70 billion crowns ($740 million-$1.5 billion) to start replacing its fleet of 24 Mig-29's by 2004, but that the state currently lacked funds.

Slovakia is one of several central and eastern European states shopping for new fighters. Poland is considering buying 48 and Austria 30, among others.

The Anglo-Swedish consortium BAE Systems-Saab (BA)(SAABb) is seen as a frontrunner in the region, having won endorsement from Hungary and a signal of endorsement from the Czech Republic to supply up to 38 jets in total.

Stank said he and von Sydow discussed the possibility of Slovakia buying BAE-Saab jets, but that the government had not yet made any concrete decisions on which planes it would buy.

Others vying for contracts are French Dassault (AVMD), U.S.-based Boeing (BA) and Lockheed Martin (LMT), and European Aeronautic Defence & Space Co NV, or EADS, (EAD) (EAD) consortium.

NATO rejected Slovakia when it last expanded in 1999 due to the undemocratic policies of former Premier Vladimir Meciar but the current pro-western government, which ousted Meciar in 1998 elections, has now made the country a candidate for entry.

Meciar's HZDS party is seen winning the most votes in the September elections, however. Diplomats say his return to power could derail Slovakia's membership hopes, but it is not clear whether he will be able to muster support to create a majority cabinet. ($=47.33 Slovak crowns)


2002 Reuters Limited.

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