The U.S. State Department has cleared a Slovak government request for the potential sale of 14 F-16 Block 70/72 V- configuration combat aircraft. A notification of the potential Foreign Military Sale (FMS) was delivered by the Pentagon’s Defense Security Cooperation Agency (DSCA) to Congress on April 3.
The proposed package – including AESA radars, M61 A1 Vulcan 20mm guns, Joint Helmet Mounted Cueing Systems, ALQ-213 electronic warfare management systems, guidance kits for Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM) 500-pound guided bombs, etc. – comes with an estimated price tag of $2.91 billion (EUR2.37 billion).
The approval of the proposed FMS paves the way for Slovakia to finalize negotiations on an F-16V procurement should it opt for that fighter type to replace its aging fleet of MiG-29s.
The other option being examined is the Swedish-built Saab JAS 39 Gripen.
Slovakia has appeared to tilt in favor of the Gripen at different intervals, with the outlines of a possible lease beginning to formulate back in 2014. Under a Slovak Defense Ministry proposal finalized in December 2015, the Slovak Air Force would have leased eight Gripen fighters (six single-seat C variants and two D-model two-seaters), each performing up to 1,200 flight hours per year. This would parallel a similar deal ironed out with Saab by Slovakia’s neighbor and ally, the Czech Republic, which shares a “Joint Sky” agreement with Bratislava.
But by June 2016, the Slovak Defense Ministry had announced its rejection of the deal offered by the Swedish government, citing cost as one major concern. Instead of settling on the Gripen, the three-party governing coalition led by Prime Minister Robert Fico opted instead in September 2016 to extend a Defense Ministry mandate to negotiate with different suppliers in order to lock down the best price possible.
Meanwhile, the MiG-29 fleet is nearing obsolescence. Slovakia currently has a maintenance contract in place with Russia for its remaining fleet of 12 MiG-29 fighters that runs to the fall of 2019. If an order for a new fighter is not placed soon, that contract will need to be extended in order to prevent a capabilities gap prior to delivery of any future combat aircraft type.
The problem, however, is that political pressures following the murder of an investigative journalist and the resultant popular backlash have put the reshuffled three-party coalition government (now led by Peter Pellegrini following the resignation of long-serving Prime Minister Fico in the face of mass protests) on shaky footing. The new cabinet has adopted Fico’s agenda, which includes balancing the national budget by 2020 while remaining on a pro-EU and pro-NATO course.
The desire for fiscal stability while aligning with NATO’s investment goals outlined at the 2014 Summit in Wales represents a tightrope walk for Slovakia. Though Slovakian defense investment has steadily risen since 2014, its current military budget is still just EUR1.08 billion ($1.33 billion and 1.2 percent of GDP). The long-neglected Slovak military faces multiple modernization pressure points, thus pitting an expensive fighter procurement against other pressing requirements in the competition for a share of the limited military capitalization portion of the defense budget.