Slovakia delays decision to replace Russian fighter jets

BRATISLAVA (Reuters) - Slovakia will postpone a planned fighter jet purchase pending a broader upgrade of its armed forces, the defense minister said on Wednesday, following warnings that such a move could prolong its dependence on Russia.

The central European NATO member state has been in talks with several firms about replacing its aging Russian-made MiG-29s.

Peter Gajdos mentioned U.S. F-16 fighter jets from Lockheed Martin and Gripen jets made by Sweden’s Saab as options. Neighboring Hungary and the Czech Republic already operate the latter.

Slovakia was expected to make decision by the end of this month, but Gajdos said this would be delayed.

“We need to modernize the ground forces which are the backbone of our military. While we have been replacing some parts of the air force, the ground forces have not been renewed for decades,” he said.

Slovakia is due to spend about 6.5 billion euros ($7.80 billion) by 2030 to modernize its army, the defense ministry said in a strategy document, released last week and to be debated in the first half of 2018.

Its spending on defense is due to rise from 1.1 percent of GDP to 1.6 percent in 2020 and 2.0 percent by 2024.

Prime Minister Robert Fico said last month Slovakia should pick “European solutions” for the army if it wanted to be part of a more deeply integrated core European Union.

Gajdos, from the nationalist, eurosceptic SNS party that forms part of the governing coalition, has faced criticism from both its partners -- Fico’s leftist Smer and the centrist Most party -- that delays in closing the fighter deal could prolong Slovakia’s dependence on Russia.

“If the finance ministry and government earmark money for all projects, we are ready to finalize the ongoing negotiations and close the deal” on new jets, Gajdos said.

In 2015, Slovakia made a deal to buy nine U.S.-made Black Hawk helicopters to replace its Russian Mi-17 fleet, and signed with Italy’s Alenia Aermacchi for two Spartan C-27J transport aircraft to replace Russian Antonovs the year before.

The government already approved a plan to spend 1.2 billion euros ($1.44 billion) to replace its outdated armored personnel carriers in May.

Slovakia has a maintenance contract with Russia for its 12 MiG-29s until autumn 2019. If it does not order new jets soon it would need to prolong that, as they would typically take 18-24 months to deliver.

“Prolongation of the Mig-29s contract is the plan B, the plan A is the purchase of new jets. I won’t accept any other than a pro-European and pro-Atlantic solution (for their replacement),” Gajdos said.

Reporting By Tatiana Jancarikova; editing by John Stonestreet