Squabbling within Slovakia’s fractious coalition has flared up again, this time over the longrunning and vexatious issue of replacing the country’s Soviet-era Mig-29 supersonic jet fighters.
The quarrel threatens to once more delay Slovak plans to modernise its defence capabilities and improve military co-operation with its Visegrad neighbours on Nato’s eastern flank.
The coalition of social democrats (Smer), Slovak Nationalists (SNS) and ethnic Hungarians (Most-Hid) was rocked in August, when Prime Minister Robert Fico sacked the SNS education minister over an EU funds scandal. Smer leader Fico and SNS leader Andrej Danko then agreed a truce earlier this month, by signing an amendment to their coalition agreement pledging to improve co-operation.
However, on September 20, a simmering row over defence modernisation boiled over again, when Robert Ondrejcsak, the Most-Hid deputy defence minister, spoke out against plans by SNS Defence Minister Peter Gajdoš to prioritise spending on new armoured vehicles, and postpone a decision on how to proceed with the supersonic fighter tender.
Ondrejcsak wrote on his Facebook page: “Postponing the decision to replace MiGs means the prolongation of our dependency on Russia, which is at odds with Slovakia’s European and pro-Atlantic orientation. I can’t identify with it, neither as an expert nor public person.”
Slovakia still has a fleet of 12 Russian MiG-29 fighters, a force that was upgraded in 2008 and which is maintained under a contract with Russia that runs out in autumn 2019. Neighbouring Hungary and Czechia operate Swedish Saab JAS-39 Gripen fighters; while Poland flies both MiG-29 jets and US Lockheed Martin F-16 fighters. All Visegrad airforces with the exception of Slovakia's have helped protect the airspace of the Baltic states, which lack supersonic jets and are the often subject to incursions by Russian aircraft.
Fico, a former Communist party member who is critical of sanctions against Russia, has in the past been at best lukewarm about defence modernisation. However, he has now moved decisively to chart Slovakia’s future as part of a potential inner core of the European Union, as well as a more serious player in Nato, which means raising defence spending and getting rid of Warsaw Pact weaponry.
"If Slovakia is interested in being at the core of the EU, we need to show partners that we can make decisions that are European,” the prime minister said in August with reference to the supersonic fighter tender.
Slovakia has pledged to raise defence spending from 1.1% of gross domestic product to 1.6% by 2020, and to reach the 2% level set by Nato by 2030. It plans to spend €6.5bn by 2030, according to a defence ministry strategy document.
Many defence experts are sceptical about these grand plans, regarding them as just a rhetorical declaration, unrelated to budget realities or institutional capacity. “1.6% is just symbolic,” Martin Dubeci, a defence analyst close to the new opposition Progressive Slovakia party, told bne IntelliNews. “It does not reflect in any way money moving through the system.”
Moreover, the SNS, which controls the defence ministry, has in the past been sympathetic to Moscow and opposed to Nato, and it remains sceptical towards the EU. It also wants spending to be focussed on armoured vehicles, where Slovak firms can pick up parts contracts (and show their gratitude to the politicians who facilitated them).
“We need to modernise the ground forces which are the backbone of our military,” Gajdoš has said. “While we have been replacing some parts of the air force, the ground forces have not been renewed for decades.”
In 2015, under Fico’s previous single party government, Slovakia agreed to buy nine Black Hawk military helicopters from Sikorski of the US for an estimated $260mn.
Fico’s current government agreed in May to spend €1.2bn on new armoured vehicles, and replacement supersonic jets would cost a similar sum, putting the defence budget under great strain at a time when the finance ministry is planning to run a balanced budget in 2019. Fiscal discipline is also a key calling card for Slovakia’s dream to join the EU’s inner core.
Fico’s previous government was in talks to lease Gripens, which would have enabled Slovakia to co-operate more closely with neighbouring Hungary and the Czech Republic, with potential cost savings. In February, Slovakia and Czechia, which were one country as Czechoslovakia until 1993, signed an agreement on joint protection of their airspace.
However, on becoming minister, Gajdoš reopened the tender with a new request for proposals, this time with an idea to buy rather than lease fighters. Gajdoš had been asked by the cabinet to propose a plan for the tender by the end of September, but he has now sought to delay this until mid 2018, sparking the row with his deputy.
The Gripen is still in contention, and any shelving of the tender would be another big blow for Saab, which has also recently lost ground in a similar tender in Bulgaria. Lockheed Martin’s F-16 is also again being considered, and even Russia’s MiG has bid, though the minister claims its offer will only be looked at for comparison purposes. “Prolongation of the Mig-29s contract is the plan B, the plan A is the purchase of new jets,” he has said. “I won’t accept any other than a pro-European and pro-Atlantic solution.”
Defence analysts argue that if Slovakia only starts thinking about a tender process in the middle of next year, this will not give the country enough time to receive new fighters before autumn 2019, forcing the government to prolong the Russian maintenance contract, perhaps revamp the MiGs once again, and delay modernisation of the airforce until the next decade. “I see no way this [tender] can happen in this timescale,” says Dubeci.
Ignoring the bluster, it looks clear that if Slovakia really wants to revamp its armed forces, it will soon have to make some tough choices on priorities, and perhaps go back to leasing rather than buying, if it is also to maintain its fiscal goals and its European dreams.