MYSTERY, CONFUSION THREATEN JET SALES CZECH OFFICIALS ASKING, WHO SPEAKS FOR U.S.? Series: PLANE DEALING IN EASTERN EUROPE SECOND OF A TWO PART SERIES
Philip Dine Post-Dispatch Washington Bureau, St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)
On one level, this nation's selection of a jet fighter to modernize its armed forces is a rather formal and public process, as intended.
Parliamentarians debate, applauding generals watch the air shows and a committee of the chiefs of defense, industry, finance, foreign affairs and interior ponders what criteria are key.
The request for proposals has been drafted, sources say, and may be given to the competitors by fall. Eager officials talk of having new jets in place by 2003. But a closer look reveals a series of odd episodes, lending a cloak-and-dagger character to the "transparent" procurement process that all parties regard as the goal. Hopes by St. Louis-based McDonnell Douglas Corp. of landing a $1 billion contract to sell 30 fighters have been threatened by various events - from the leaking of an FBI document to a mysterious physical assault to the U.S. Embassy's expression of preferences among competing planes. For the Czechs, the incidents risk turning some citizens off to the very idea of upgrading the armed forces and joining NATO. "I'm afraid of that," says Petr Necas, a rising young figure who heads Parliament's Committee on Defense and Security. Yet, McDonnell has rallied from imposed - and self-inflicted - injuries to place itself in a strong position. Many Czech officials are now enamored by what they see as the technical capabilities of the company's F/A-18 Hornet, which is competing with another American entry, Lockheed Martin's F-16 Falcon. A Plane Crashes When a Hornet crashed last year near Bethalto, Ill., killing the pilot, attention focused on the cause. Machinists who had gone on strike two weeks before the June 19 crash argued that if they, instead of white-collar employees, had been maintaining the plane, the aircraft would have been in better shape - something the company hotly disputed. Not much attention was paid to the fact that the Hornet had been leased back from the Navy to practice for a Czech air show, where McDonnell hoped to display its prowess. The Hornet's absence had in the Czech Republic what one defense official calls a "negative effect" that sparked talk of "the accident in the U.S." That was especially true because for unrelated reasons the Hornet was finding it tough to get a positive reception or even much of a hearing. At the time the plane went down, defense and military officials at the American Embassy in Prague were waging a quiet yet determined battle against the F/A-18, despite a requirement that embassies remain neutral in commercial matters involving competing U.S. firms. As the Post-Dispatch reported on April 23, an embassy officer wrote a four-page letter in February to Czech Air Force chief Pavel Strubl and Deputy Defense Minister Miroslav Kalousek, arguing that Lockheed's Falcon was a better deal. A copy was then sent to Necas, the parliamentary defense chairman, with a cover note saying the letter "represents the official U.S. position." The newspaper later reported that back in August, a Navy Pentagon official was concerned enough about the actions of embassy officers to write to them that the Hornet sales effort was "fully supported by the Departments of Navy and Defense." The State Department sent the news accounts to the Naval Criminal Investigations Service, Air Force Office of Special Investigations, Supreme Allied Headquarters in Brussels and other agencies, a source says. Polish and Hungarian military and political leaders discussed the Czech imbroglio and how to avoid it. The U.S. ambassador in Poland called together his staff "to see if we had a similar problem." In fact, the campaign by the U.S. Embassy in Prague against the F-18 was more extensive. As far back as late 1995, as McDonnell executives made initial forays to the Czech Republic, one says he was warned point-blank by an embassy official that, "This is F-16 country." Later, some people lobbying for the Hornet were characterized as working against U. …