Polish Air Force Eyes Western Jet Fighters

A Washington visit by Poland's chief

As former Warsaw Pact nations move to win entry in the NATO alliance, Western arms suppliers are looking to the former Communist nations of Central Europe as new customers. The reason: These nations are being asked to make their arsenals NATO-compatible.

NATO officials are asking Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic to modernize with Western aircraft and missile systems. NATO also requires these countries to change their command-and-control systems, but not tanks and artillery. Makers of aircraft and air-defense systems are lining up in the region's capitals to bid for billion-dollar contracts.

Yesterday, Polish President Alexander Kwasniewski was in the United States for the first time since being elected last November. The former Communist was in Washington to discuss NATO membership and Poland's coming offer for new fighter jets with President Clinton and jet manufacturers.

Poland, which plans to make an offer in August or September, wants to replace most of its old Communist-era fighter jets. Government officials say five companies are in the running for a contract that could be worth up to $5 billion. The government has said it will need about 100 new planes.

"We don't need the most modern equipment. We must have equipment which is in common use in NATO countries," says Jerzy Milewski, Poland's national-security chief.

This puts American aircraft - the most common in NATO - in a privileged position. US aircraft manufacturers Lockheed Martin Corp. and McDonnell Douglas Corp. have also been the most active here in marketing their respective offers. Lockheed produces the F-16 jet, and McDonnell makes the F-18. The firms have offered to lease used planes or to sell new ones and to cooperate in future production in Poland.

"American companies will have a better position if we get more guarantees about cooperation in production [of aircraft] in Poland," Mr. Kwasniewski said prior to leaving for Washington. The issue is critical to Poland because its arms manufacturers have lost money since the fall of communism. With no new contracts or state-of-the-art technology, the industry has little chance to survive.

McDonnell Douglas has said that if Poland orders 12 F-18s, in a signal that more orders will come in the future, then 60 percent of the fighter could be assembled in Poland.

The Swedish firm SAAB, which is also a bidder, proposed cooperating with a Polish plant in producing its new Gripen fighter planes, which cost less than the American jets. Kwasniewski said Poland will consider the Swedish bid for economic, military, and political reasons.

Other aircraft producers that have bid are France's Dassault Aviation, which produces the Mirage jet, and the Russian manufacturers of the MIG 29. But the French and Russian manufacturers have shown less interest in the Polish market than the other firms have.

Other countries in the region are moving at their own pace. Hungary has plans to order at least 30 Western-made aircraft, plus radar systems and missiles. Hungary's government has signed a nonbinding memorandum of understanding with SAAB for the Gripen, a deal that could be worth $1.2 billion. But the finance ministry would like to delay any firm tender. The Czech Republic has not yet committed to buying any new fighters.

Poland is much more keen about modernizing its weapons than are Hungary and the Czech Republic, because unlike them it shares a common border with Russia and Belarus - a perceived security threat.

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