NATO's Robertson advises caution as Czechs agonise over jet fighters


NATO's Secretary General, Lord Robertson, arrived in Prague on Wednesday for a two-day official visit, to discuss the Czech Republic's progress in harmonising its military forces with its Western partners. Lord Robertson, formerly Britain's Defence Minister, spent much of Wednesday day deep in talks with Czech officials, meeting Foreign Minister Jan Kavan and President Vaclav Havel. There was much to discuss, including modernisation of the Czech Army and plans for the next NATO summit, which will be held in Prague next year. But as Rob Cameron reports, George Robertson's visit has been dominated by a heated debate over whether the Czech Republic needs to buy new supersonic jet fighters for the outdated Czech Air Force.

George RobertsonGeorge Robertson Lord Robertson said he fully recognised the efforts made by the Czech Republic in transforming its armed forces over the last decade. The country has undergone a difficult transition since the overthrow of Communism in 1989: from Warsaw Pact stalwart to fully-fledged member of the North Atlantic Alliance. Speaking at a press conference after meeting the Czech Foreign Minister, Jan Kavan, Mr. Robertson had words of praise for the Czech military contribution in the Balkans:

There will be more kudos for the Czech Republic next year, when Prague hosts the 2002 NATO Summit - the first post-Communist country to do so. Lord Robertson said the choice of venue was highly appropriate, telling reporters that "nowhere better represents the new NATO than the capital of the Czech Republic." But it wasn't all praise: the NATO Secretary General pointed out that there was still much work to be done in the modernisation of the Czech armed forces:
Part of that modernisation involves plans to replace its ageing fleet of MiG-21 fighters with new, super-modern aircraft. To say this plan is controversial would be the understatement of the year. The Czech government recently opened a tender to supply the Czech Air Force with between 24 and 36 new supersonic fighters - with five consortiums bidding for the tender. The price tag? - around two and a half billion dollars - a massive amount of money for a country which - as critics points out - often doesn't have enough fuel to keep its existing planes in the air. Lord Robertson's choice of words was highly diplomatic, but the message was clear:
Opponents of the plan say the Czech Republic just can't afford it, and have criticised the Czech government's elaborate off-set investment plan - the company that wins the tender will have to reinvest 150 percent of the price tag back into the Czech Republic - as over-ambitious. The country's fleet of decrepit MiG 21s will be decommissioned in 2004, and the jet fighters issue looks set to dominate defence spending talks for the next few years.

But there were many other points on Mr Robertson's agenda: one of them being the creation of a new European defence force to supplement NATO's post-war role as guardian of European security. Czech Foreign Minister Jan Kavan says Europe now has the financial means to start resolve its own disputes, without undermining NATO.

So one would naturally expect that the U.S. would be happy to lighten the burden of maintaining security in Europe. But the idea of creating a 60,000-strong European Rapid Reaction Force - acting independently of NATO to resolve regional crises as they arise - has caused some alarm in the United States. Mr Kavan said such alarm was unfounded, and said his country was strongly in favour of sharing in the project.