Minister of National Defense Gabriel Les said in an interview with AGERPRES that the F-16 Fighting Falcon aircraft of Squadron 53, Fetesti Air Base 86, will start Air Police missions under national command on Thursday.
He referred to the program of endowment of the Army with fighter jets, pointing out that the needs are much higher and that Romania is currently in the first stage of this process.
Gabriel Les also spoke about the leadership of Defense Staff (SMAp), a matter which he says should be resolved through a dialogue with President Klaus Iohannis, whom he accuses to be in an electoral campaign.
As to the Army endowment with 8×8 Piranha 5 armored personnel carriers, the minister of defense gave assurances in the same interview that there is no risk of termination of the contract in this case.
He has also clarified the MApN budget, as well as the situation regarding the differentiated pay for the military staff in the theaters of operations or the modernization of the Cantacuzino Institute.
Mr. Minister, you have also held this portfolio in the Government of Grindeanu for six months. Soon, it will be four months since you took over the second mandate. How do you evaluate the four months at the ministry?
These past four months have been extremely difficult. In the first six months of 2017, when I started in the Ministry of National Defense, we had 2pct of GDP for defense secured. Part of this amount, at least 20pct, should go for endowment, and then we had the endowment programs so necessary to the MApN, so that after over 25 years of under-financing of our Ministry of Defense, the gear, although it is functional, is extremely obsolete, morally outdated and somewhat of today’s requirements, the capabilities that we need, are at a completely different level. These 2pct, assumed by the Government and through the government program, bring a great boost to the Ministry of National Defense through the possibility of launching very large and necessary endowment programs.
In 2017, we intended to start these programs, today we are currently running programs worth over 5 billion euro, signed contracts at different stages, and it is much easier to talk about programs, work on some programs you would like to start at some point. It is unfortunately quite difficult to carry them out several times. The procurement of some programs, with such amounts – the military gear is extremely expensive – is never easy. Today, we have these programs running, some work and go well, others are unfortunately blocked or suspended. Life is not exactly that easy at the moment with the Ministry of National Defense. We also have the other aspects of the human resources, which is the most important of the Ministry of National Defense and here we are talking about the pension area, wages, aspects that address the inequalities in the system made long ago, aspects that we are working on and trying to correct.
You were saying about 2pct of GDP for defense. You said that this percentage represents important opportunities for Romania’s economy in general and the defense industry in particular. How much of the money you spend is used to pay foreign bills and how much is used in the country?
NATO rules stipulate that at least 20pct of this sum goes to the endowment, and here I would like to answer you in the following way: the need and the endowment demand are enormous, because we have to replace almost everything we have. Talking about the troops and our presence in so many theaters of operations, you need the product as quickly as possible and to be there. On the other hand, from a political and social point of view, it is normal and logical that this amount of GDP is used more in our defense industry and our economy, so that you can be competitive at a given time and from the point of view of the industry for us to be able to offer certain military products for export to MApN and not only to it.
At this point, unfortunately, after two years and four months of 2pct of GDP, which was to a certain extent something I was expecting, integration into our defense industry is quite low because our industry has not been prepared to take over our demand for military technology. They are not technologicalized at the level of year 2019. These are both aspects of industries that, over time, with a lot of money, have managed to be at the level of a very advanced military gear. All the programs we are considering, everything we think of as acquisition, we try to do them in such a way that there is a technology transfer, offset contracts, even if the maintenance centers for some products are made in collaboration with our industry, so that during the lifetime of the military product we have those maintenance centers here, we can support them. Often, maintenance of a military product over its lifetime costs just how much it costs to buy it. Together with the Ministry of Economy, with Minister Badalau, we have had a lot of talks and we are trying for at least the next ten years, as we have assumed the existence of 2pct of GDP for endowment, to make the technology transfer as much as possible, to be able to offer as many products as possible. Unfortunately, we live in a competitive and open environment – the European Union – but once we have the necessary technology, you can also provide the Ministry of Defense demand with our defense industry.
The budget came to Parliament with a three-month delay, went through a referral to the CCR [Constitutional Court of Romania, ed.n.], is now resent to Parliament. Do you consider that this delay may affect Romania’s obligations, the industry?
If we talk strictly about the Ministry of National Defense, it is not very affected because the programs that we are running are not jeopardized by the lack of budget, but for the rest of the economy, the local administration any day of delay in the approval of this budget is a big minus because we are talking about investments and so on. Similarly, if the Ministry of National Defense wants to start a new investment, it does not have the possibility because it does not have a budget, for the old ones, for the programs that are in progress and for the invoices that are issued there are no problems because we operate on 1 / 12 of the 2019 budget. The estimates we have and the budget that has been approved by Parliament, beyond all political budget attacks, is more than 2 billion more than last year. We are talking about a budget of 20.5 billion lei, which means that the percentage for the area of supply is growing slightly. We have programs that we can start because more than 12 major programs are being prepared in the Ministry of National Defense, and here I am referring to programs over 100 million euro, which require Parliament’s approval. The budget is a definite necessity.
There have been problems in the implementation of the contract for the delivery to Romania of PIRANHA 5 8×8 armored carriers. The first such carriers should have arrived in January. You talked about calculating penalties for the supplier. How much could they amount to? Is there a risk of seeing the contract terminated?
There is no risk of seeing the contract terminated because the necessity of the endowment with these 8×8 carriers is mandatory. We have paid in advance for these products. It seems the products exist. They are made. At the latest tests, it was not the product itself, but some components that have not passed the acceptance tests. We expect the production company to get all the notices for the tests they have carried out and the first ones to get in the endowment, I hope, as soon as possible, in the next few months, the 36 pieces that were supposed to come somewhere by mid-February – the end this month. They are still in the grace period. We will comply with the terms of the contract and issue bills for penalties if these terms are not met. We made the payments in time, we put a down payment exactly as specified in the contract. We also expect the same seriousness from the producer. There are also issues that have to do with objective issues, but these can be discussed in court, after all, and there is no question of that from our point of view. We will issue the penalty invoices for all products, not just for the 8×8, for all those who will not comply with their contractual terms.
You have announced that the procedure for the acquisition of F16 aircraft has kicked off and that Romania wants to buy such new aircraft. What prevents you from doing such a purchase? Couldn’t buying second-hand machines and upgrading them be more expensive?
Our endowment programs include all the approvals, including the CSAT, for yet another set of 48 F16 planes that must be get in the endowment of the Romanian Armed Forces because the 12 we currently have and this week we are going through an extremely important stage in the life of these planes, is only the first phase. Our need for fighter aircraft is much greater. Our discussions are very advanced. We have sent documents for the next five to the Portuguese partner, to see if there is a surplus for these planes. The discussions we have had, including in the US, have also come to the issue of the need to purchase a new aircraft or a second-hand aircraft exactly on the same logic you mentioned, whether the price of a second-hand aircraft is not very close to the price of a new one.
At this point, we do not have a reply as to what new planes mean, we do not know if the company wants to start the aircraft line for so many new planes and I cannot tell you at this time the price difference between a retrofitted second-hand aircraft and a new aircraft. We are waiting for the answer from the strategic partner, the US partner, and we’ll see what the next decision will be. When we talk about a retrofitted second-hand aircraft, we are not talking as about a ten-year-old second-hand car on which you’re doing a bit of repair. The aircraft is quite different, the engine is new, the avionics are ultramodern, the fuselage is upgraded and meets certain criteria that the manufacturer put at some point. So we’re not talking about some second-hand aircraft that are wrecks, as we see all kinds of explanations in the press, at some point, in certain online environments. We’re talking about highly capable aircraft that are very close to what a new plane is.
You are talking about an important stage in the case of F-16 aircraft that will take place this week. Can you give us some details?
On Thursday, March 14, the F-16 National Air Police Service will become operational. Until now, we have been doing this service with MIG airplanes if we talk about the Romanian Air Force. I would like to thank our partners – the United Kingdom, Canada, the USA – who have helped us these years with aircraft for this service, brought their airplanes and carried out air policing for Romania. We are important and respected partners, that is what this tells me. We will operationalise this air policing squadron for the time being under national command, and that will be under NATO command in the coming months, as well.
Regarding the purchase of corvettes, the procedure was suspended pending the decision of the court. When might we have a decision? Was the manufacturer aware of this?
The tender participants are all aware of the stage we are at this time. There have been some suspicions about the procedural aspects of this procurement. There is also a challenge of the HG [Government Decision, ed.n.] that regulated all of this procedure. We are still in court on administrative litigation. I would like us to make this decision as soon as possible, any extension of this term means an extension of the term at which we will have the first functional corvette. Our intention is that this acquisition go as quickly as possible. I can not give you a time reference at this point, but it’s a matter of a few months, not many, I hope.
Most of the army’s tanks are Soviet-made, technically outdated, and only a small part are retrofitted Romanian tanks. Is there a program or plan for purchasing such equipment?
There is, but it’s not the right time to talk about it. It is not mature enough to tell you what would be the final decision to buy such technology. There aren’t many solutions, there are solutions that belong with the EU, the area we also come from, and perhaps NATO’s partners.
Russian military analysts are talking about an increase in the threat of war in the area and the fact that it is inevitable. They argue that Ukraine and the Republic of Moldova could be future theaters of war that would attract Romania in the fight, and our country would be involved alongside NATO forces. How do you comment on these statements?
I would not want to dramatize, nor however take very lightly these threats, provocations which Russia is making. Trying to justify their own warlike actions, Russia uses a very aggressive language. We are aware of this, we are monitoring as far as Romania and the NATO partners can go. NATO also closely monitors everything happening in this area, including the statements. What I want to convey is that we are safe, we are a full-fledged NATO partner, and we do not want to convey fears that are not real at this moment. That does not mean that we rest easy as the Romanian says and we do nothing. These activities are monitored very carefully.
Is the activity at the top of the Army affected by disputes between the Ministry of National Defense and President Iohannis on the Chief of Defense Staff? How do you see the settlement of the situation apart from the court?
Through dialogue. I have always wanted dialogue, and I think I have always been a man of dialogue and I think that this situation could be solved without getting here, following the dialogue, a dialogue that,] only I, unfortunately, wanted . The activity had better not been in the situation it is now. I am saying it is not very affected, but definitely things should have looked different. Unfortunately, we are in court now, we will see what the court will say. This is an issue that neither of us will be able to comment on, and we will not comment on the court’s decisions, either. We have a deputy who has responsibilities of Chief of Defense Staff, documents are also sent for the permanent appointment of the latter. We’ll see how things go on.
You have also sent a letter to the President. Did you get a response? Did you try to call him?
I have been trying to call him since December. Now we have sent a letter following a court decision asking us to try and find an amicable solution. It is somewhat embarrassing to us, the actors in this situation, because it wasn’t logical for someone to come and tell the presidential institution and the Ministry of National Defense: You better get along! From my point of view, it’s rather embarrassing. We tried immediately after that sentence to get in touch and communicate the desire for dialogue. We have seen that was not possible and we submitted a document to demonstrate our intention of dialogue. No reply was received. I see that for some the electoral campaigns, unfortunately, is more important than solving situations that exist in important institutions in the state.
Why did not you pursue the alternative to extend General Ciuca’s term because there is this possibility?
There is this possibility, but in the 28 years after the Revolution, there has only been one extension. The mandate is provided for four years, the prolongation in principle is only carried out in certain situations, in which Romania is not at this moment. I would not neither have wanted to send a message of lack of leadership to the Ministry of National Defense because that is not the case, there are very well-trained people who could have taken over this position and brought new spirit to the Ministry of National Defense. I have said it every time and I want to repeat, it is not a question of man, of person, my respect for Mr. Ciuca is special. That is why I had proposed that he stay as the Minister’s adviser, on an appropriate position. The decision was to appoint a new General of the Romanian Army to take this position further.
The Cantacuzino Institute was transferred to the administration of the ministry you are running. Is the rehabilitation of this strategic institution harder than estimated?
Yes, it is. It’s a simple answer, but I’m telling you we won’t stop, we operate, not within the parameters I wished for at this moment, but hopefully by the end of the year we’ll succeed in rehabilitating the Cantacuzino Institute and making it once again what it used to be. So far, something is being produced, but not at the level of the vaccines as we would have wished. We do have planned investment in keeping with the medical technique they need over there, including investment in the buildings area. It will take a while until we manage to re-start production the way the Cantacuzino Institute used to be once.
What are the problems you are facing?
Simply administrative, organizational, too much obsolete equipment, from refrigerators to the technique the medical doctors use there. Those are obsolete. The design we have today for that institute is integrated, from the area it operates to the technique and staff.
Premier Viorica Dancila said that in the next period an analysis of the activity of each ministry will be carried out. Do you have any reasons to fear?
No, not at all. I’m very calm because we are trying to carry out our activity as best we can. On the other side, it is a political position, a public position that comes and goes. What’s important is to leave something behind us, no matter what happens at political level.