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Iceland set to embrace war-game fliers

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Iceland set to embrace war-game fliers


Gudmundur Petursson worked for years as a contractor for the US military at Keflavik airbase on the Reykjanes peninsula, south-west Iceland. Now, he is waiting for a green light from the Icelandic government to start building a 15,000 sq metre hangar for a fleet of Russian-made fighter jets.


Mr Petursson, chief executive of FM Service, an Icelandic facility management company, is a cheerleader for plans by a private military training company to base up to 33 Sukhoi “flanker” jets at Keflavik for use by air forces worldwide as mock enemy in aerial war games.


“Most people around here are very positive about it because it will bring a lot of jobs and keep technological expertise here,” he said.


Iceland’s readiness to embrace ECA Program, the company involved in the plan, highlights its need for jobs and investment after a banking crisis shattered the country’s economy in 2008.


The Keflavik area was struggling before the crisis after the departure of the US air force in 2006 pushed up unemployment. The base closure ended 60 years of US presence at Keflavik and left Iceland, which has no armed forces of its own, without any permanent military protection.


Critics have portrayed ECA Program as a mysterious “private army” seeking to fill Iceland’s security vacuum.


But Melville ten Cate, the company’s Dutch co-founder, insists that there is nothing sinister about his plan to buy €1.2bn ($1.5bn, £983m) of warplanes from Belarus and bring them to Iceland. The aircraft will not be equipped to carry ammunition, allowing them to be licensed as commercial aircraft, and no military exercises will take place in Icelandic airspace, he says. “We couldn’t take out a pigeon unless it flew into the engine.”


ECA had previously targeted Goose Bay airbase in Canada as a potential home but turned to Iceland when negotiations with Canadian authorities broke down.


Detailed talks have been under way for more than a year over the lease of space at Keflavik and much of the certification needed to import the jets and associated ground equipment has been secured.


Support for the project is far from universal within the Icelandic government but officials say ECA is close to winning conditional approval. A few similar companies, such as Airborne Tactical Advantage Company of the US and Top Aces of Canada, offer a similar service using older Israeli, French and US jets. But, if all goes to plan, ECA’s will become by far the biggest and newest fleet of its kind. The aircraft are to be backed up by ground equipment, including radar and communications jamming technology and simulated surface-to-air missile systems, to create realistic training conditions.


Several defence industry officials contacted by the Financial Times are deeply sceptical of ECA’s business plan, given the cost of buying and maintaining fighter aircraft.


Mr ten Cate insists he can pull it off. He says most air forces use their aircraft to mimic the enemy – a waste of resources, he argues, that risks creating a false sense of security.


“With the cost per hour of flying fighter jets, you cannot afford to have guys boring holes in the sky not learning anything. Training should involve flying against different aircraft to your own, behaving like your enemy.”


SU-27s are an important part of Russian and Chinese air power but Mr ten Cate insists that ECA is not aiming to imitate either. “Russian fighter jets have been sold around the world so they are widely used,” he says. “We’re a generic enemy.”


A recruitment drive is under way for up to 45 qualified fighter pilots, as well as maintenance technicians. An advertisement was placed in an aviation trade publication last month offering pilots a salary of €160,000 a year – more than all but the most senior commercial airline pilots.








Source: The Financial Times Limited 2010

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