Andrzej Jeziorski/SINGAPORE

Russia is proposing wide ranging defence deals with Austria and South Korea as a means of paying off long-term debts to the two nations.

The South Korean defence ministry says it is planning to buy about $500 million of defence material, including fixed- and rotary-wing aircraft from Russia this year.

Col Kim Yong-hwan, chief of the ministry's acquisitions policy division, said in Seoul last week that the country has agreed to sign a deal including the purchase of in-flight refuelling tankers, transport and training aircraft, and transport helicopters.

The first working-level meeting on the purchase was held in December, and followed up with another meeting earlier this month.

The deal is seen as a move to reduce the $1.8 billion of outstanding Russian debt to Seoul, which dates back to the administration of Roh Tae-woo, South Korea's president from 1987to 1992.

"The Russians have been pressing for some time for Korea to offset its debt through purchases of equipment, and they are now pushing hard again with Russian President Vladimir Putin due to visit at the end of February," says a senior defence source in Seoul.

However, the source adds that the purchases are intended to meet "not terribly conspicuous" needs, pointing out that a transport helicopter requirement "is not around as a visible programme". Also, Korea already has two home-grown military trainer aircraft -the Daewoo KT-1 Woong-Bee turboprop primary trainer and the forthcoming Korea Aerospace Industries T-50 Golden Eagle jet.

Kim says that a "field study" of available equipment will be carried out by the ministry next month, and a list of items to buy could be drawn up by the end of March.

Putin has also been at the centre of a Russian bid to sell fighters to Austria. The Russian president is offering to trade an undisclosed number of RSK MiG-29 fighters in exchange for cancellation of the country's $300 million debt to Austria. The proposal was made during a three-day state visit to Vienna by the Russian leader starting 7 February.

The offer comes as Austria considers options for replacing obsolete Saab J35 Draken fighters. An Austrian delegation, led by right-wing politician Joerg Haider, visited Moscow last October to discuss the proposal, according to Austrian press reports.

The Russian government has not clarified which variant of MiG-29 is on offer. Large numbers of early model MiG-29A fighters remain in storage and similar aircraft have already been included in deals with other customers such as Slovakia and Bulgaria.

It is likely, however, that the Austrian air force would want a modernised variant, with upgraded avionics at least compatible with its NATO neighbours.

The Austrian air force favours the Saab/BAE JAS 39 Gripen, though the Boeing F/A-18, Dassault Mirage 2000-5 and Lockheed Martin F-16 are also contenders.

Source: Flight International