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Russians See Red over Seoul Aircraft Deal

    22.05.2002
    By John Helmer /Asia Times/
    Russian defense officials are furious at what they describe as a campaign of dirty tricks by the United States to get South Korea to choose the Boeing F-15 fighter-bomber over the Russian contender, the Sukhoi Su-35.
    The South Korean defense ministry has been discussing a variety of Russian arms and aerospace offers since the visit to Seoul in February 2001 of President Vladimir Putin. Shortly after the visit, the two governments signed a memorandum of understanding that envisaged the supply of Russian aircraft worth an estimated US$600-$800 million as partial repayment of Russia's multibillion-dollar debt to South Korea.

    In fact, said an official of Rosoboronexport, the state arms export agency, "In spite of the promise of the Koreans to hold the tender with maximal objectivity, from the very beginning it was surrounded by scandals. This was caused by use of dirty tricks by the competitors and by the obvious preference given to one of them, the USA. The winner of the tender - the F-15K plane - is known to be obsolete. Even the experts of the Korean defense ministry indicated that it has rather poor characteristics compared to the requirements set at the tender."

    In an uncharacteristic display of rancor, the Rosoboronexport source told ATO "all the participants of the tender understood that it was in fact a smokescreen and that the victory would be given to the US". He is also critical of "disinformation spread by the Korean media regarding the price of the Russian aircraft. Rosoboronexport proposed the price of $3 billion after the second round of negotiations. This compared to the $4 billion price tag for the F-15. Nonetheless, the Korean press continued reporting that the Russian offer was $4 billion. In addition, Russia proposed to deliver some of the fighters as part of the repayment of Russian debt to Korea."

    According to Ruslan Pukhov, director of the Moscow-based Center for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies, "Russia had only one possibility to win such a tender - if it had real instruments for influencing North Korea, South Korea would treat Moscow seriously. But the Russian influence on North Korea is non-existent and relations between the two countries look more like operetta."

    Pukhov said "It was clear from the very beginning that Russia did not have chances to win. It is practically impossible, or at least very hard for Korea to buy weapons from third countries when the US guarantees the security of Korea. A certain price must be paid for that." Pukhov also conceded there have been problems with Russian arms shipments to South Korea in the past. "They bought tanks and other arms before and no proper supplies of spare parts and maintenance came from the side of the Russian suppliers. As a result, Korea uses these arms for training purposes only."

    He told ATO that Putin "had to hear all this during the last meeting with he Koreans. Of course, Sukhoi is another case. In the event that Russia won the tender for fighter planes, the contract for maintenance and supplies of spare parts would have been a very interesting contract."

    Rosoboronexport told ATO it remains more confident of winning an order from Malaysia, whose air force has yet to decide on a tender that has pitted the F-18 Super Hornet from the US against the Russian Sukhoi Su-30MK. One of the decisive factors, Pukhov said, will be the fact that he US will not allow its aircraft to be armed with missiles capable of striking other US-made aircraft. "I wouldn't overemphasize Malaysia's willingness to follow the US after September 11. When it comes to aircraft supplies, the US doesn't provide long-range missiles to Malaysia," he said. "Besides that, the US is not willing to provide the codes that prevent US-made missiles from hitting US-made aircraft. On this score, Malaysia is more willing to get Russian planes."

    Pukhov is predicting another split decision, with some of the 24 new aircraft to come from Russia, and some from the US. When Prime Minister Mathahir Mohamad first decided to buy Russian MiG-29s for his air force, he also bought an equal number of US-made Hornets.

    Konstantin Maknienko, deputy director of the Center for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies, told ATO that Rosoboronexport has been stirring up rivalries in Moscow with a proposal to eliminate export permits allowing Russian weapons producers to market their products directly. He expects this to be rejected by the Defense Ministry and the inter-ministerial Committee for Military and Technical Cooperation, set up by Putin a year ago.

    At the same time, Maknienko denied reports that Rosoboronexport has been largely ineffective in winning new contracts for Russian arms exports. "It is less than two years since the management of Rosoboronexport was changed. That is too short a period for judging its effectiveness. But it is incorrect to say that Rosoboronexport only works on the contracts it inherited from the previous management. In 2000 and 2001 quite a few new contracts were signed."

    He and Pukhov noted that Rosoboronexport may succeed in winning a major aircraft order in Brazil, also against US and French rivals. "There, too, the US doesn't provide codes for missiles which prevent striking US-made aircraft of a different country," Pukhov said. "Although Brazil doesn't plan to make war against any of its neighbors, paying more for a plane, which it cannot fully control, is not the best choice. This is the reason why Brazilians favor the Russian and the French at this stage." In the Brazilian tender, the Su-35 is competing against the F-16 and Mirage-2000/5; a total of 24 aircraft will be purchased.

    Last year Rosoboronexport declared export sales of $4.2 billion. Sukhoi is reported to have made sales of $900 million for the year.



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