Do the country's air force pilots finally have something to look forward to? After three hours of discussion on Wednesday night, the cabinet announced it was to start negotiations with the Swedish government on leasing 14 Gripen fighter jets to the Czech air force. The planes are to replace the country's ageing fleet of MiG-21 fighters, which must be decommissioned by the end of 2004.
"It certainly is. I remember when I flew to Sweden with the former Czech Prime Minister Milos Zeman almost three years ago, and buying - not leasing - Gripens was very much top of the agenda. You'll remember that that initial deal to buy between 24 and 36 Gripen jets was called off after last year's devastating floods, when Mr Zeman's successor Vladimir Spidla said the country simply couldn't afford the multi-billion dollar price tag."
And a new tender was launched.
"And a new tender was launched, and won by Sweden, with its offer of 14 Gripen Jas-39 fighter jets. Sweden managed to beat off competition from a number of different countries, including the U.S. There was a lot of last-minute lobbying from the Americans, which wanted the Czechs to buy F-16s. There were even reports in the media that U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell put in a personal call to Prime Minister Spidla to go for the F-16s. But it wasn't enough, and apparently the Swedes have won the day.
Hang on, why "apparently"? I thought this was a done deal?
"It's not at all, I'm afraid. The cabinet has simply agreed to enter into exclusive negotiations with Sweden on supplying the Czech air force with planes, and has authorised the ministers of defence, finance, foreign affairs and trade and industry to begin negotiating terms and report back to the cabinet in two months. Which you'll probably agree is far from a done deal, although you wouldn't think so from reading the headlines in today's papers."
Are you saying the Czech air force might not get Gripens after all?
"I'm saying it's possible. The Belgians and the Dutch - who like Americans were offering modernised F-16 fighters - have already sent in revised bids, which the Czech government can use to put pressure on Sweden to ask for better conditions. And if the Swedes fail to match those terms, the government could call off the whole deal and start talking about F-16s again. And then we're right back to square one."
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