Romania’s fighter dilemma Răspunde

As part of an ambitious 15 billion euros modernization plan, conceived in 2005, Romania should have replaced by now its aging fighter force with a new modern multipurpose aircraft. However, political difficulties, internal wrangling and the economic crisis of September 2008 have delayed these plans and threaten Romania’s ability to protect its airspace and fulfill its obligations as a NATO member.

The mainstay of the Romanian Air Force for almost forty years has been the Soviet built MiG-21 Fishbed, which has now become hopelessly outdated and needs replacement. A series of upgrades and overhauls in the mid 90’s have allowed the MiG-21 fleet to stay airborne until 2012 and maintain a decent degree of interoperability with other NATO partners. However the life expectancy of these air crafts is now almost over and they offer little military capabilities. Consequently in 2006 the Romanian Ministry of Defense decided to allocate 4.5 billion dollars to buy 48 new multipurpose fighters for the Air Force. The decision to buy these fighters should have been taken in 2008, but for political and economic reasons it has now been deferred most likely until 2010.

Political troubles regarding the acquisition of the new fighters were linked with the constant bickering between the then Prime Minister Calin Popescu Tariceanu and president Traian Basescu. It seemed that the prime minister favored a European fighter, while the president preferred buying American. Furthermore as the 2008 elections grew closer, defense spending was no longer on the government’s agenda. To make matters worse, the social democrats criticized the entire acquisition asking for a smaller number of aircraft to be bought. In 2008 no decision could be made, as the liberal government was in minority and depended on the votes of the opposition to stay in power.

The planned acquisition of new fighters has also come under the scrutiny of the press, which in the past has investigated and revealed problems with other defense modernization programs: the acquisition of second hand HAWK missiles (still inoperable as of 2009) from the Netherlands in 2003 has been linked to obtaining that country’s vote to join NATO or the corruption scandal linked to the acquisition in 2003 of two second hand Type 22 ex-Royal Navy frigates from BAE Systems. All these scandals have marred the image of the armed forces and have raised questions regarding further modernization programs. Moreover, the perception that Romania is offered or buys only second hand systems has cast doubt, in the eyes of the public, over the entire effort to bring Romania’s defense into the 21st century.

Romanian military planners seem to have eyed three combat jets to become the next  fighter of the Romanian Air Force: the American F-16 Fighting Falcon (Viper) produced by Lockheed Martin, the EADS Eurofighter Typhoon and Sweden’s JAS 39 Gripen. Other fighters were considered: F/A 18 Hornet and Dassault Rafale, but they did not end up on the short list because of the costs involved, as they are two-engine fighters.

From the three main competitors the best placed seems to be the American F-16. Although it is a bit older than its European counterparts, it is popular with many Romanian pilots, some of whom have had the opportunity to fly the F-16 during exchange programs in the United States and during international exercises. The F-16 is also likely to be integrated faster with the squadrons because some of its systems are familiar to the Romanian pilots, as the modernization of the MiG-21 involved some technology developed from that of the American fighter by the Israeli Elbit company. The F-16 is also popular with the Romanian political elite, especially president Traian Basescu and with the Air Force brass. Previous experience with Poland has also shown that if a Central or Eastern European country has a strategic partnership with the United States, it will chose to buy main line weapon systems from America, despite the availability of European equivalents. Moreover if Romania is to buy the F-16, chances are it is going to be included in the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program, the largest of its kind in history, but that is not going to happen until 2025. On the downside some of the F-16 fighters Romania is going to buy will be used aircraft and this will not go down well with the media and a part of the political establishment.

JAS-39 Gripen is next in line, being the cheapest to operate and probably the least expensive. Furthermore SAAB and BAE Systems are willing to offer generous contract conditions: 100% off-set, one billion Euros direct investments in Romania’s aircraft industry and in green energy projects, willingness to defer payment until all aircraft are delivered, service during the entire lifetime of the aircraft and even agreeing on a leasing arrangement. These rather generous conditions offered by SAAB have to do with the recent failure in marketing its aircraft in the Netherlands and Norway as well as uncertainty regarding future contracts. On the downside the Gripen has less range, it hasn’t been tested in combat, is tailored more for Sweden’s security needs and it carries a smaller  payload than the F-16 or the Typhoon. Moreover Sweden is known for its neutrality and strict export controls on its weapons systems, issues that may undermine its ability to deliver parts and maintenance in crisis situations.

The third contestant, the Euofighter Typhoon is a thoroughbred air superiority fighter with air to ground capabilities. It is the European counterpart to the American F-22 Raptor, having some stealth characteristics and the ability to super cruise. EADS has promised an off-set agreement of 80% for the entire contract and investments in Romania’s aircraft and car industries. Although Romania would be fortunate to have such a fighter in its inventory, the price tag and running costs of the Typhoon are out of its league.

Romania is fortunate in having a wide range of choices when it comes to buying a new fighter, however given the current economic and political climate in Romania it is unlikely that a decision will be made regarding this acquisition in 2009. Furthermore, political as well as economic considerations will weigh heavily in this decision, and whatever the aircraft selected, it is going to generate a lot of debate within the Romanian political establishment.

George VIŞAN

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