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Air Force embraces US presence

In a few months, a dozen American F-16's will be coasting through Slovakia's airspace, and Slovak officials are hoping the sun glinting off their wings will send a powerful signal to NATO to support Slovakia's entry into the international defence organization.
The jets and up to 200 US soldiers are coming from Aviano Air Force Base in Italy, one of the largest NATO air force bases in southern Europe. While they plan primarily to work on their own training here, part of the agreement is that they will also cooperate with and perhaps help train Slovak pilots.
Top Slovak brass are hoping the additional training will help westernise their forces, which currently fly Russian-made planes like Mig 29's. The US Air Force will also pay a fee to use the Malacky Air Force base, a boon to the cash-strapped Defence Ministry.


US Air Force personnel will soon be billeted in Slovakia at Malacky Air Force Base near Bratislava. Here to provide technical support and to train with Slovak pilots, the Americans may also inject much needed capital into the base and its environs.
photo: TASR

In a few months, a dozen American F-16's will be coasting through Slovakia's airspace, and Slovak officials are hoping the sun glinting off their wings will send a powerful signal to NATO to support Slovakia's entry into the international defence organization.

The jets and up to 200 US soldiers are coming from Aviano Air Force Base in Italy, one of the largest NATO air force bases in southern Europe. While they plan primarily to work on their own training here, part of the agreement is that they will also cooperate with and perhaps help train Slovak pilots.

Top Slovak brass are hoping the additional training will help westernise their forces, which currently fly Russian-made planes like Mig 29's. The US Air Force will also pay a fee to use the Malacky Air Force base, a boon to the cash-strapped Defence Ministry.

Not everyone is happy about the arrival of the Americans, though. The fighters will be based about 40 kilometers from Bratislava at Malacký Air Force base, Slovakia's best equipped air force facility. The base is near a number of villages whose citizens are concerned that the appearance of the US fighters will bring more noise and no direct financial benefit.

The agreement to use the base, signed on February 9 by the Defence Ministry and the US Air Force, sketches the details of the cooperation between the two sides in broad terms and does not mention anything directly about NATO entry. But American officials are patting the Slovak government on the back for its willingness to allow the US Air Force to use Slovak soil for training.

US Ambassador to Slovakia Ralph Johnson said that by signing a memorandum with the US Air Force, Slovakia sent a strong positive signal westwards about its intention to enter NATO.

"Now we are seeing more focus on the Slovak side, and it's clear that there's been a change at the top in terms of a stronger commitment to preparations for NATO membership and for carrying out the reforms that are necessary to do that," Johnson said.

Many Slovak army pilots have already worked with US top-guns at international exercises annually organized on Slovak soil as well as at foreign air bases. But according to Johnson, their joint cooperation in Malacky "will enable the Slovak and American air forces to get to know each other much better."

The main problem for the Slovak Air Force will be the differences in doctrine and in tactics between NATO and the former Warsaw Pact, Johnson said.

Slovak Air Force officials also claim that relations with NATO member countries will improve as a result of the treaty. "Slovakia has moved itself into the spotlight of NATO members, and we expect this could help the country to be included in the Alliance entry vanguard very soon," said Jozef Dunaj, Commander in Chief of the Air Force 3rd Corps.

But if the country is serious about pushing for NATO entry, Dunaj added, it needs to do more than just host the US Air Force. The Slovak Air Force has certain deficiencies which will make the accession process slow and difficult, he warned. The list of main problems includes the insufficient training time afforded to Slovak pilots and sloppy technical maintenance of aircraft and airports.

According to Dunaj, in neighbouring countries like the Czech Republic, Poland and Hungary - all of which were scheduled to enter NATO on March 12 - pilots have up to 70 flying hours per year, while in Slovakia the figure has recently tumbled to 20 and may yet fall further due to budget cuts in 1999.

"Unless there's an increase in the operating budget, we can't expect that the situation will improve dramatically," Dunaj said.

Given the cash-strapped situation of the Slovak Air Force, one of the most attractive aspects of the US presence will be the money that is injected into the Malacky base.

Defence Ministry State Secretary Jozef Pivarči said that the bulk of the fee which will be paid by the US for use of the facility - neither side wouuld say just how much - is due to be pumped back into the base for new buildings and equipment.

Money, too, seems to be the cure for the local resentment that has been generated by the pending arrival of the Anerican pilots.

Jana Beňová, a 17-year-old student and a resident of the nearby village of Kuchyňa, said that with the arrival of US Air Force troops "the situation will get much worse than it is now, because when [the aircrafts] fly the noise is just horrible, and then they will fly more frequently."

To calm local outrage over the G. I. Joe invasion, Defence Minister Pavol Kanis and Ambassador Johnson met with the mayors of the villages surrounding the airbase on March 5.

The mayors spoke of the worries of their citizens about the disturbance the jets would create, but finally agreed to cooperate with the Air Force on condition that the municipalities be given more finances from the state to build supply facilities and improve regional infrastructure.

Kuchyňa mayor František Pálka said that the mayors had been considering a petition against the treaty, but decided instead to talk to Johnson about how Americans could help them improve their town's supply and transport systems and municipal facilities.

"We expect that with the increasing intensity of activities at the airbase, new jobs for our people will be created," Pálka said.

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