December 16, 2011 / 3:55 PM / 8 years ago

Serb air force seeks new fighter jets

* Belgrade seeks around a dozen aircraft

* Deal would cost a billion euros

By Aleksandar Vasovic

BELGRADE, Dec 16 (Reuters) - The Serbian air force, left with just a handful of operational planes after wars in the 1990s, wants to buy a dozen aircraft at a cost of around 1 billion euros (1.3 billion), a defence official said on Friday.

“The procurement of two squadrons, weapons systems, spares and training will likely require additional borrowing,” said the official, who asked not to be named. “Parliamentary approval would be needed.”

“We would ideally need between 12 and 16 new planes to secure our air space,” he said. “A billion euros would do.”

In an interview with the Odbrana defence bi-weekly published on Friday, Serbia’s air force commander Brigadier General Ranko Zivak said the defence ministry would invite foreign manufacturers next year to make offers.

Serbia’s military budget accounted for about 2 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) or about 1.15 billion euros in 2011 and next year’s military budget will likely stay the same.

The source did not elaborate on how Serbia would secure borrowing and stay below a public debt lid set at 45 percent of GDP and within fiscal rules which form part of a 18-month 1 billion euro stand-by deal with the International Monetary Fund.

Serbia’s military aviation, a successor of former communist Yugoslavia’s air force, has been plagued by obsolescence and a lack of aircraft for more than two decades.

It fell into disrepair during a United Nations weapons embargo in the 1990s over Serbia’s role in wars in other parts of ex-Yugoslavia. Most of its modern Soviet-built MIG 29 fighters were destroyed by NATO during a 1999 bombing campaign to end the Kosovo war.

The Serbian fighter force is currently comprised of three MIG 29s and about a dozen obsolete MIG 21s which will end service by end-2012. In the interview, Zivak said the defense ministry would finalise purchase plans this month.

Top Serbian defence officials have said the country was evaluating Russian Sukhoi Su-30, the United States-made F16 and F18, France’s Rafalle, Sweden’s JAS Gripen, Chinese JF-17 or the internationally-made Eurofighter.

“Perhaps the best option would be a lease-to-buy deal, but that remains to be seen,” the defence official said.

Belgrade also has to decide whether it will buy planes from NATO countries or its allies Russia and China.

After the ouster of former autocratic President Slobodan Milosevic in 2000, Serbia sought to improve relations with NATO, but retained military neutrality. ($1 = 0.7694 euros) (Reporting By Aleksandar Vasovic; editing by Philippa Fletcher)

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