December 15, 2003 (by Lieven Dewitte) - NATO member the Czech Republic is set to decide on a replacement for its fleet of ageing, Soviet-built MiG-21 fighters amid intense diplomatic lobbying and mud slinging.
U.S. ambassador to the Czech Republic Craig Stapleton issued a blunt warning that U.S-Czech relations would be harmed if the country goes ahead and selects a Swedish offer of JAS-39 Gripen fighters to protect its skies.
An advisory commission reviewing offers received by the government unanimously recommended a Swedish offer for JAS-39 Gripens earlier this month. However, the US would like those countries offering the Czech Republic US-made F-16 fighter planes to have the chance to renegotiate the price of their offer.
In addition to the US offer, F-16s have also been offered by Belgium
and the Netherlands
, while Canada has offered F-18s.
According to the Stapleton, the F-16s are still in the running and the Czech government should allow the countries offering them to improve their offer, as Sweden did. In Stapleton's assessment, the matter remains open, as the advisory commission failed to take into account the compatibility issue when making its recommendation.
In a thinly-veiled move to pressure the Czechs Stapleton said: "The Czech Republic is a member of NATO
and NATO does not fly Gripens".
The re-opening of the competition at this point would however be a violation of the ministry's own rules as the time for offers is over.
Belgium, which finished second in the tender, also favors a second round. Jose Warnez, defense attache at the Belgian embassy in Prague, said a letter had been sent to Minister of Defense Jaroslav Kostelka about the possibility of further negotiations over the deal.
He does not see a reason why the Czech government wouldn't take the chance to further negotiate when all of the participant countries are willing to discuss their bids. Belgium's ministry also suggested talks on long-term cooperation between the Belgian and Czech air forces.
Reliable sources have said the Belgian offer of used F-16 MLUs, was very close to the Swedish offer.
Jos Hooimejer defense attache at the Dutch embassy is also in favor of fresh offers as he overheard there were only marginal differences between the offers.
William Perkins, vice president for Eastern Europe of Lockheed Martin, told that the company believes its F-16 still has a chance if the government holds a second round. The second round would according to him, also be a good thing for Czech taxpayers as the price for receiving the jets would be lower.