Romanian Defence Minister Mircea Dusa reignited a fight with the EU over defence procurement when he announced that Bucharest intends to go ahead with a plan to buy a 12-strong squadron of F-16 multi-role fighters from Portugal.
Romania has been at loggerheads with the EU for several years over its intention to buy the second-hand US jets made by made by Lockheed Martin to replace its aging Soviet-built MIG-21 Lancers rather than hold a transparent tender in which other manufacturers like Saab Gripen would compete. bne revealed in September that the European Commission had sent letters to the governments of Romania, Bulgaria and the Czech Republic to highlight EU laws concerning procurement, after it became concerned about possible moves by those member states to conclude major defence deals to buy supersonic fighter jets without holding an open tender.
Following a meeting with his Portuguese counterpart Jose Pedro Aguiar-Branco on April 22, Dusa was quoted by Xinhua as saying: "By the end of May, we will probably finalize documents with the Portuguese party and subsequently, until September, with the American party, so that we resume the multi-role aircraft equipping program at the scale of a squadron, ie. 12 planes."
Dusa's predecessor Corneliu Dobritoiu announced last autumn that Romania would pay around €670m over five years for the fighters. Romania and Portugal have a deadline of June to complete negotiations, Dusa said, adding that the package includes everything necessary for the operation of the planes: the training of the pilots, maintenance, and upgrading.
According to the newspaper's sources, the fighters are among 25 F-16s delivered to Portugal in 1999 under the Peace Atlantis II Program. Prior to that, they had been used by the US Air Force since 1984. The aircraft are in "very good" condition, according to Romanian expert teams.
The latest move continues a three-year battle by Romania to try to avoid clear EU procurements, raising suspicions of corruption in a country that is riddled with it. The brouhaha began in March 2010 when the Romanian president's office announced that after a meeting of the Supreme Defence Council - an unelected advisory board that has no executive powers but is very influential by dint of its appointment by the president - it had been decided to send a proposal to parliament to acquire 24 used F-16 fighters from the US Air Force. President Traian Basescu in subsequent interviews said it was purely an economic decision, yet that didn't stand up to much scrutiny. Saab Gripen quickly released its proposal, showing it would offer 24 brand new multi-role jets, for the same price of around €1bn.
Saab Gripen was joined at the time by Eurofighter in stressing the need for a transparent tender under EU rules. Following heated debates in the Romanian parliament and the media, the decision was shelved a few months later, with the president citing a lack of funds. However, over the subsequent years several Romanian officials indicated that the plan to buy the F-16s was still alive.
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