DEFENCE Minister Juraj Liška found himself in the unenviable position of defending not his country's borders or allies but his country's air defences: Slovakia's fleet of MiG-29s, Russian-built fighter planes dating back to Soviet times.
On October 10 Liška said that modernizing the MiG-29s was the most economic and effective way of securing safety in Slovakia's skies. Liška's critics, however, claim that upgrading Soviet-era planes is more expensive in the long run than leasing more modern, Western fighter jets.
In the face of criticism that the MiG-29s were so decrepit that they lacked suitable mechanisms to tell enemy planes from allied fighters, the defence minister called a special conference to push for modernization.
"Modernizing is the cheapest way" to solve the problem, the minister argued, saying it was far more cost effective than leasing planes from other countries.
Liška denied that modern-ization of the fighter planes would cost the country up to Sk2 and 3 billion (€50 to €80 million) per year. "We would pay around Sk450 million (€11 million) per year," Liška said.
Later, when the number of flight hours increased, expenditures would reach about Sk900 million (€23 million) per year, he said.
The Defence Ministry would like 6 of the 12 planes to be modernized by the end of 2005, while the rest of the planes would receive facelifts in 2006. General repairs would cost around Sk0.7 billion (€20 million); complete modernization, on the other hand, would cost Sk1 billion (€30 million) more.
Liška's plan met with strong resistance. Some of his detractors even argued that upgrading would require that Slovakia provide the Russian Federation with sensitive military information.
According to the daily newspaper Hospodárske noviny, former deputy chief of staff of the Slovak Army, Peter Švec, warned that modernizing the Soviet-era fleet would be too expensive.
Švec said that expenditures per flight hour are considerably higher on the MiG-29s and on former Eastern-bloc planes in general than on Western ones.
A matter of money
Defence officials admitted that the Russian-made MiG-29s are unable to tell enemy from allied planes.
Jozef Dunaj, the chief of Slovakia's Air Force, said that after modernization, however, the planes "would be able to [intercept enemies]".
According to the TASR news agency, MiG-29s can, at the moment, intercept enemies only thanks to information provided by operators on the ground. Dunaj said that these Slovak planes would never be used outside of Slovakia's air space, however, a condition that NATO accepted when agreeing to Slovakia's membership in the alliance.
Apart from Russian firms, a British firm BAE Systems and US company Rockwell Collins participate on the repairs to the MiG-29 planes.
The minister believes that compared to the Czech Republic's decision to rent 14 Grippen planes for around 20 billion Czech crowns over the course of 10 years, Slovakia's modernization plan is just as effective - and much cheaper.
Robert Kaliňák, the head of the parliamentary defence committee, agrees that Slovakia cannot afford to buy or rent expensive new planes.
"We inherited the MiGs. We got them for free, so to speak. We know there are better quality planes out there, but we cannot afford them," Kaliňák told The Slovak Spectator.
"It's like buying a car. We know that diesel cars are more cost effective. However, diesel cars are more expensive than those that take petrol. If we were to use more effective planes, someone would have to give them to us for free. We simply cannot afford the initial costs," he said.
Kaliňák said that if Slovakia were to buy 10 new fighter planes for Sk2.5 to 4 billion (€64 to €100 million) each, plus pay servicing costs, "that would be a third of the nation's annual budget".
"These are the facts we have to face," he said.
According to the Defence Ministry's MiG-29 modernization plan, the planes would be in use for another eight years. However, in 2009, it is likely that Slovakia would organize a tender to buy new planes.
Defence Minister Liška sug-gested that a new type of plane, the so-called JST (Joint Strike Fighter), which is being developed with the assistance of a group of NATO member states, could be on the market by that time.
"We expect that when it arrives, the prices of current fighter planes will be half of what it is now," said Liška. He did not specify whether Slovakia would be interested in buying the JSFs, adding that it was just a possibility for the future.
During a recent visit to Moscow, Liška and his Russian counterpart, Sergey Ivanov, discussed the possibility that Russia would modernize the Slovak army's military transport helicopters.
17. Oct 2005 at 0:00 | Martina Jurinová