Bratislava, Slovakia – The U.S. Department of Defense has announced that Lockheed Martin was awarded an almost $800 million contract to produce and support F-16 fighter jets for Slovakia and replace the country’s ageing Russian MiG-29 fighter jets. The purchase has been slated as Slovakia’s biggest-ever military purchase.
The $799,955,939 firm-fixed-price incentive contract for F-16 aircraft production provides for the production and support of 14 Slovak Republic F-16 block 70 aircraft, and is expected to be completed by Jan. 31, 2024.
As The Defense Post points out, the purchase “has long been controversial”, as talks surrounding the replacement of Slovaki’as fleet of MiG-29s have often broken down.
Long and controversial
Slovakia had been in talks with the Swedish government regarding the purchase of JAS-39 Gripen fighter jets for years, before Defense Minister Peter Gajdoš and the nationalist and Eurosceptic SNS coalition stalled the talks and invited new bidders, including Lockheed Martin, to the table. The field was eventually narrowed in February 2018 to a choice between Lockheed Martin’s American-made F-16 Fighting Falcons or Saab’s Swedish Gripen fighter jets.
Then, following months of talks, PM Peter Pellegrini postponed its decision, claiming he needed more time to compare the U.S. and Swedish offers, hoping to “eliminate any doubts” before making this “serious decision worth billions of euros”. Critics feared at the time that the delay will keep prolonging the country’s dependence on Russia, who was still contracted to maintain Slovakia’s fleet of twelve Soviet-made MiG-29s in a deal worth up to 80 million dollars.
The controversy was seemingly put to an end when, in November, the Slovak Ministry of Defence announced that it had signed a deal with Lockheed Martin. Hours later, Pellegrini issued a statement saying that the F-16 contracts were invalid because they had not been approved by the finance ministry.
In December, Slovakia finally signed an agreement with Lockheed Martin for the 14 combat aircrafts. The first four jets are scheduled to be delivered by 2022.
F-16 vs. Gripen
International interest in the F-16 Fighting Falcon, a combat-proven fourth generation fighter aircraft that first flew in 1974 remains high. The F-16 Viper variant includes an active electronically scanned array radar, a new mission computer and electronic warfare suite, automated ground collision avoidance system, and various cockpit improvements. It first flew in October 2015.
Neighbouring fleets in Hungary and the Czech Republic already operate 12 Gripens fighter jets each, while Poland flies a large fleet of 48 F-16s and 31 MiG-29s. Slovakia and the Czech Republic have a “joint sky” agreement where the two help protect each other’s air space, and could have also shared maintenance and pilot training if Slovakia had chosen Gripen.