Infighting May Hurt Czech Plane Deal

Article excerpt

The dispute over which of two American fighters the Czech Republic should buy could shoot down both, says the American ambassador.

As the Post-Dispatch reported recently, some staff members at the U.S. Embassy appear to have favored Lockheed Martin and its F-16 Falcon over McDonnell Douglas Corp. and its F/A-18 Hornet.

Now, to try to win the $1 billion deal for either of the American companies, Ambassador Jenonne Walker has met with the Czech defense minister. She said she also has tightened the rules in her own embassy. She took the actions out of concern that Czech officials might sidestep the American infighting by selecting a third fighter - the Swedish Gripen, from Saab and British Aerospace. "So we could knock ourselves out of the running, if we were seen to be squabbling among ourselves," Walker said Tuesday. The urgency goes beyond the $1 billion in Czech orders. The money could multiply if Poland, Hungary and other new Eastern European democracies decide on a common approach to weapons as they seek to join NATO. But first, the Czechs. Walker says she phoned Czech Defense Minister Miloslav Vyborny to meet. "I was delighted he would see me on a moment's notice," she said. "I told him, in light of the story in the Post-Dispatch alleging partiality, `I absolutely hope you buy American. . . . We have no preference. Both are terrific airplanes.' " Walker said she had put out a message to her staff. "In the future, when two American companies are competing, I think everybody has been sensitized that I or my deputy should see everything," she said. But she vigorously defended the embassy's behavior, saying employees had been "scrupulous" to maintain an even-handed approach. She acknowledged that had she known of certain phrases used by embassy officials she would have altered them. The Post-Dispatch reported last month that in letters sent in February and March to top Czech military and political figures, U.S. defense and security attaches at the embassy suggested that Lockheed's Falcon was a better deal than McDonnell's Hornet. The newspaper later reported that as long ago as August, Defense Department officials were concerned that the embassy was short-changing McDonnell. On Aug. 16, a Navy official at the Pentagon wrote to embassy military officers to stress the need for fair play for McDonnell. …


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