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Romania: Defence Deal Under Scrutiny

A multi-million dollar deal to buy second-hand British warships has come in for criticism.
By Calin Cosmaciuc

Romania's ambitious plan to restructure its obsolete navy by purchasing two British frigates for 186 million US dollars has triggered controversy over the cost and usefulness of the deal.


Bucharest hopes the ships, HMS Coventry and HMS London, will boost its position as a regional power in an area of increasing interest to western military planners.


As seen from NATO headquarters, Romania's greatest assets are its air and naval bases on its Black Sea coastline. The government has stated its readiness to offer these bases, and fuel and energy supply points to the United States in case of any attack on Iraq.


NATO warplanes have access to Kogalniceanu airbase near the Black Sea port of Constanta, around 2,000 km north-west of Baghdad. Romania has also offered military bases at Timisoara and Festeti while the naval base at Constanta is ready to host US troops and their equipment.


George Maior, state secretary at the country's defence ministry, told IWPR, "The agreement is just a part of our strategic planning to strengthen Romanian Navy Forces' operational capacity in a region that has assumed greater strategic importance since the terrorist attacks against the United States."


Defence Minister Ioan Mircea Pascu says the frigates are Romania's first modern warships and will help the country participate in NATO and United Nations operations.


However, the country's poor economic state meant that the ministry was unable to order the 600 million dollar package that would provide a full weapons upgrade for the two vessels. Instead, it was forced to choose the cheapest option, which will modernise the frigates and alter them to meet the requirements of the Romanian fleet.


Coventry, which saw service in the Gulf War, is scheduled to arrive in December this year, with London following six months later.


Some domestic critics have questioned the need for buying the ships at all. Bogdan Chirieac, deputy editor-in-chief of the influential daily newspaper Adevarul, said, "Romania has to pay a huge price for these two second-hand vessels, which are not definitely necessary for the country's military. In addition, no official has ever presented a clear strategy for the navy."


He also questioned whether the deal fits into the country's strategic military planning. According to NATO officials, Romanian defence policy is based on three main areas of development - air transport capabilities, specialised mountain units and military police. "Why then has the ministry of defence bought two frigates in such a rush?" asked Chirieac.


In a brief response to the wave of domestic criticism triggered by the decision, Prime Minister Adrian Nastase said, "We have full access to the Black Sea. It's important to take this into account and to contribute to future NATO actions."


Bucharest has a recent history of controversial arms deals. In 1996, Bell-Textron signed a 1.5 billion dollar deal to build up to 96 Cobra attack helicopters in Romania under license.


But one year later, after Bucharest was refused an invitation to join NATO in the first wave of enlargement, officials decided that the cost of the contract was too high. Government guarantees for the deal were withdrawn and it collapsed.


Despite public concerns regarding the real cost of alliance membership, Romanian officials are determined to continue modernising the defence infrastructure and achieve NATO standards.


The Chief of Staff General Mihail Popescu recently announced Romania has grounded its 18-strong Soviet MiG-29 fleet "for technical reasons". Both MiG 29s and MiG-21 Lancer jets are to be replaced by 2010 with NATO-compatible fighter planes.


Romania is likely to purchase American F-16 fighters, and preparations are underway to add C-130 Hercules transport aircraft to the country's air-force, as well as air surveillance equipment made by US-based firm Lockheed Martin.


Maior has argued that these plans are realistic and affordable for Romania, and told IWPR that they would not have an adverse effect on the country's defence capabilities. Although the initial outlay is substantial, it is more economical than perpetually upgrading the Soviet-era planes, he explained.


"In the medium term, the costs are high but we have to cover them. For example, it would cost some 60 million dollars per year to revitalise the MIG-29 fleet," Maior told IWPR.


Upgrading Romania's defence capabilities is an expensive project, and defence spending has steadily increased in recent years to pay for new equipment. In 2002, it stood at 2.38 per cent of GDP, almost one billion dollars, up from 710 million dollars two years previously.


In January of this year, the defence ministry announced it is to test two Lockheed Martin Multi-Mission Surveillance Radar stations. Should the trials of the 12 million dollar equipment go well, the defence ministry could purchase up to 30 units, at a cost of around 100 million dollars.


But analysts are sceptical that Romania will find enough cash to meet the huge challenge of wholesale reform. "The ministry of defence will certainly not be able to afford to buy new jets, so they will look again to purchase second-hand ones," said Chirieac.


"I hope Romania will avoid Poland's position, when the country was strongly criticised last year by the EU for purchasing American F-16 jet fighters instead of the European war planes."


Calin Cosmaciuc is a journalist with Mediafax News Agency