HALIFAX, Canada — NATO member Slovakia is on track to purchase 14 Lockheed Martin F-16V fighters to replace its MiG-29 jets in a wider effort to break from Russia, the Slovak Ministry of Defence’s No. 2 official said Saturday.
In an interview on the sidelines of the Halifax International Security Forum, MoD State Secretary Róbert Ondrejcsák said of the Russian defense industrial relationship: “We are cutting off as quickly as we can.
“The most important connection with Russia is still the MiG-29, which is still Russian manufactured, and it’s what we are cutting now with the decision about the F-16s,” Ondrejcsák said. “There several are other smaller systems.”
In the same vein, Slovakia also expects to receive five more Sikorsky UH-60M Black Hawk helicopters, which completes its planned purchase of nine. (Long-term plans call for at least 18 multi-role helicopters to replace Soviet-designed Mi-17 rotorcraft, though no platform has been selected as yet.)
“By replacing them, we are also cutting those ties with Russia,” Ondrejcsák said, adding that Slovakia will fly the UH-60 and Mi-17 for several years while the UH-60 is phased in.
Slovakia was a part of the Soviet bloc during the Cold War but joined the European Union and the NATO military alliance in 2004.
Slovakian officials understand the purchase of American hardware strengthens their strategic relationship, but Ondrejcsák emphasized — on the anniversary of Czechoslovakia’s velvet revolution in 1989 — the partnership is based on faith in liberal democratic values.
“We want to see America as a leader in the free world, as they did for 70 years,” Ondrejcsák said. “We hear a lot here [at Halifax] about the values-based international order, but it’s very real for us.”
Beyond the U.S., leaders of Slovakia and the Czech Republic announced in September the two countries will cooperate on joint purchases of weapons and military equipment. Both have moved to increase their respective defense budgets following Russia’s alleged military intervention in Ukraine’s eastern part and its annexation of the Crimean Peninsula in 2014.
As to the F-16s, Ondrejcsák said the intent is for his government to finalize the legislative vehicle and contract in the coming months to ensure timely delivery of the first F-16s in 2022 or 2023.
In part driven by maintenance costs, Slovakia decided to make a switch from the MiG-29 and ultimately chose the F-16V over the Saab Gripen based on price and internal analysis, according to Ondrejcsák.
The announcement came in July after U.S. State Department in April approved the potential sale of 14 Block 70/72 F-16Vs for Slovakia.
Otherwise, negotiations are also underway for the U.S. to further improve Slovakian air fields in Sliač, which is in central Slovakia and in Malacky, which is in in Western Slovakia.
“We take it as a win-win situation because they are investing in infrastructure, which will be crucial for us too,” Ondrejcsák said of the U.S. military. “Of course its good for them (the U.S. military) because in case of potential operations, they (the airfields) are available.”
The U.S. Air Force has ramped up investments that would enable it to deploy to allied bases in Eastern Europe and operate close to Russia’s western flank. U.S. air field improvements have already included partner air bases in Hungary, Estonia and elsewhere.
As Slovakia upgrades its heavy mechanized units, it is also exploring the modernization of its existing fleet of T-72 main battle tanks, Ondrejcsák said, rather than wait for the next generation of MBT to be developed. No platform has been selected.
“We will upgrade them to the highest possible standards which will allow them to operate in the framework of the mechanized brigade,” he said.
Joe Gould was the senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry. He had previously served as Congress reporter.