DHAKA: The recent decision by the Bangladesh government to get rid of the Russian made MIG-29s purchased through a highly controversial deal in 1999, to keep the Bangladesh Air Force (BAF) afloat, has been widely acclaimed.

Prime Minister Khaleda Zia made the decision public while meeting a delegation of the Commonwealth Journalist Association at her office. She said that most of the eight MiGs have been grounded, remarked that have become a burden on the national exchequer. She said that her government would try to sell them if a buyer was found.

This is not the only defence purchase made by the past government of former prime minister Sheikh Hasina that became controversial. The $93 million frigate purchase deal signed with Daewoo Shipyard of South Korea is yet another example. The Daewoo Shipyard had no experience in building frigates, yet it was still awarded the tender in the face of a lower offer of $78 million from an experienced Chinese shipbuilder.

The reason given for discarding the MiGs by the government was that the air force simply couldn’t afford to purchase the necessary spares and maintain these machines at a recurring cost of one billion taka annually.

It is interesting to know that prior to the signing of the purchase deal, one of the security agencies of the country, in an evaluation memo to the government, had suggested that the purchase of the MiGs would exhaust the maintenance budget of the air force.

The memo also pointed out that instead of increasing the Bangladesh Air Force’s combat capacity, it would actually reduce it because the maintenance of the existing outfit of five squadrons, each having 16 jets, would be in jeopardy for paucity of funds.

The eight MiG-29 Fulcrum jet fighters were purchased in a $124 million state-to-state deal between Dhaka and Moscow. According to reports, each aircraft was priced at $11 million, and the remaining $36 million was allocated for training and spare parts. Some 10 pilots and 70 technicians underwent training in Russia as part of the deal to familiarize themselves with the aircraft.

The present BNP-led government has levelled allegations of gross irregularities against her predecessor Sheikh Hasina, in the procurement of the jet fighters.

Sheikh Hasina, the leader of the opposition and Awami League chairperson, has dismissed the charges, and said that the MiGs were purchased at a competitive prices for what she called “defence of the country.”

Meanwhile, the Bureau of Anti-Corruption has lodged a case, implicating Hasina and some officials of her government for alleged irregularities in the purchase of the MiGs.

In a ‘White Paper’, the former government was also accused of “wilful wrongdoing” in the purchase of the military equipment from Russia.

Informed sources say that the Chinese government had offered to sell one dozen F-7 MB fighters suitable for Bangladesh on deferred payment during the tenure of the previous government, but the offer was not accepted. The F-7 MBs are less expensive, and BAF pilots and technicians are familiar with these machines as they are already flying them.

Defence sources say that the US was unable to offer Dhaka any comparable fighter jet aircraft at a competitive price, but they made serious attempt to prevent the government from purchasing the Russian MiGs.

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