November 30, 2018 / 6:40 PM / 12 days ago

Slovakia signs deal to replace Russian-made fighter jets with U.S. planes

BRATISLAVA, Nov 30 (Reuters) - Slovakia's defence ministry signed a deal on Friday to buy 14 U.S.-made F-16 fighter jets to replace its ageing Russian-made MiG-29s, its defence ministry said.

Slovakia's government picked the new F-16s made by Lockheed Martin over cheaper Swedish Gripen jets produced by Saab in July.

But relations in the three-party governing coalition have since become more tense and Prime Minister Peter Pellegrini of centre-left Smer party said the deal, overseen by a junior coalition centre-right nationalist party, will only become valid after approval by the finance ministry.

The defence ministry gave no details of the deal. Pellegrini said in July the country will pay 1.589 billion euros ($1.80 billion) for 14 fighter jets, pilot training, ammunition and two-year logistical support.

NATO member Slovakia plans to spend about 6.5 billion euros ($7.6 billion) by 2030 to modernise its military and wants to reduce its reliance on Russian equipment but it has a maintenance contract with Russia for 12 MiG-29s until autumn 2019.

The contract will likely have to be prolonged as Slovakia will not receive all 14 new jets before 2023.

Among central European neighbours, Hungary and the Czech Republic operate Gripens. Poland flies a large fleet of 48 F-16s while also keeping around 30 MiG 29s.

Slovakia's defence spending is due to rise from 1.2 percent of gross domestic product this year to 1.6 percent in 2020 and 2.0 percent by 2024. ($1 = 0.8839 euros) (Reporting By Tatiana Jancarikova Editing by Matthew Mpoke Bigg)

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