Austria to phase out its Saab 105 fighter jets, no decision on successor

Slideshow ( 2 images )

VIENNA (Reuters) - Austria will ground its nearly 50-year-old Saab fighter jets at the end of the year and solely rely on its Eurofighter warplanes from January, the defence ministry said on Monday.

The ministry said it would not decide on any successor to the Saab fighter jets until it knows the outcome of a court appeal concerning Eurofighter, triggering sharp criticism from the opposition parties.

“The Republic of Austria will continue to pursue all legal means to achieve the goal of withdrawing from the Eurofighter contract and being compensated by Eurofighter,” Defence Minister Klaudia Tanner said. “Pending the final court decision, no decisions will be taken with regard to air surveillance that would weaken Austria’s position.”

Austria is involved in a legal dispute with the Eurofighter consortium, which includes Airbus, Britain’s BAE Systems and Italy’s Leonardo, over its nearly 2 billion euro ($2.3 billion) purchase in 2003.

The defence ministry said in 2017 it believed Airbus and the Eurofighter consortium had misled Austria over the purchase price, deliverability and equipment of the jets, accusations the consortium denies.

A Vienna court stopped a related investigation in April, which the state appealed. A broader criminal investigation of suspected bribery in the same deal that has been ongoing since 2011 has not been affected by the closure.

“From Airbus’ perspective, nothing has changed in this matter,” the company said, adding it viewed demands for reparation or reversal of the delivery contract as “not founded on any legal basis”.

Neutral Austria currently operates 12 Saab 105 aircraft alongside its 15 Eurofighter jets. Army representatives have long warned that it is getting harder to guarantee full security as investment decisions have been repeatedly delayed.

Opposition parties criticised the defence minister. “With her decision for a single-fleet Eurofighter system, Tanner is making herself fully dependent on the Eurofighter manufacturer Airbus and the NATO,” said Robert Laimer, defence spokesman for the Social Democrats.

Reporting by Kirsti Knolle; Editing by Barbara Lewis and David Evans