Romanian Defence Minister Mircea Dusa reignited a fight with the EU over defence procurement when he said on a trip to Portugal that Bucharest intends to buy a 12-strong squadron of F-16 multirole fighters purchased from Portugal, to replace its aging Soviet-built MIG-21 Lancers.
Romania has been at loggerheads with the EU for several years over its intention to buy the second-hand American jets made by made by Lockheed Martin rather than hold a transparent tender in which other manufacturers like Saab Gripen would compete. bne revealed in September that the European Commission had sent letters to the governments of Romania, Bulgaria and the Czech Republic to highlight EU laws concerning procurement, after it became concerned about possible moves by those member states to conclude major defence deals to buy supersonic fighter jets without holding an open tender.
Following a meeting with his counterpart Jose Pedro Aguiar-Branco, Dusa was quoted by Xinhua as saying: "By the end of May, we will probably finalize documents with the Portuguese party and subsequently, until September - with the American party, so that we resume the multirole aircraft equipping program at the scale of a squadron, i.e. 12 planes."
Dusa's predecessor Corneliu Dobritoiu announced last autumn that Romania would pay around EUR670m over five years for these fighter jets.
Romania and Portugal have a deadline this June to complete negotiations, Dusa said, and that the package included everything necessary for the operation of the planes: the training of the pilots, maintenance, upgrading and everything else.
According to Xinhua sources, the fighters are among the 25 F-16s delivered to Portugal by the US in 1999 under the Peace Atlantis II Program. Prior to that, they had been used by the US Air Force since 1984 before they were placed in storage.
The aircrafts are in "very good" condition, according the Romanian expert teams sent to Portugal to evaluate the technical condition of the multi-purpose jets with the assistance of U.S. experts.
The latest move continues a three-year battle by Romania to try to avoid clear EU procurements, raising suspicions of corruption in a country that is riddled with it. The brouhaha began in March 2010 when the Romanian president's office announced that after a meeting of the Supreme Defence Council - an unelected advisory board that has no executive powers but is very influential by dint of its appointment by the country's president - it had been decided to send a proposal to parliament to acquire 24 used F-16 fighters from the US Air Force. President Traian Basescu in subsequent interviews said it was purely an economic decision, yet that didn't stand up to much scrutiny once Saab had released its proposal showing it would offer 24 brand new Gripen C/D multirole jets, for the same price of around EUR1bn.
Saab Gripen was joined by Eurofighter in stressing the need for a transparent tender under EU rules. Following heated debates in parliament and the media, the decision was shelved a few months later, with the president citing a lack of funds to buy the jets. However, over the subsequent years several Romanian officials have indicated that the government intends to press ahead with the move.