The United States secretly purchased 21 advanced fighter jets last month from the former Soviet republic of Moldova in what Pentagon officials disclosed Tuesday was a move to deny sale of the aircraft to Iran and keep pieces of the old Soviet nuclear arsenal off the open market.
Many of the high-performance MiG-29 aircraft are capable of delivering nuclear weapons, the officials said. Moldova informed U.S. authorities that Iran had expressed interest in buying the aircraft and even had sent inspectors to look over the planes.
Over the past two weeks, U.S. crews partially dismantled the jets in Moldova and flew the components in giant U.S. Air Force C-17 transport planes to an Air Force base near Dayton, Ohio, where they are to be reassembled.
"We're taking them out of the hands of those who otherwise might acquire them," Defense Secretary William Cohen said at a news conference at the Pentagon. "We will obviously study the aircraft for our own national security purposes, because .
. this type of aircraft could very well end up in the hands of other rogue nations."
While the United States had acquired MiGs in the past, 14 of the Moldovan planes are more modern "C" models not previously in the American inventory, nor in Iran's, defense officials said. Six are "A" models, and one is a "B" model trainer.
In addition to the aircraft, the sale included delivery of more than 500 Soviet-made, air-to-air missiles, none nuclear. Moldova has no atomic weapons.
The deal marked the second reported time since the Soviet Union's collapse in 1991 that the United States has sought to thwart the threat of nuclear terrorism by buying and spiriting to this country assets once belonging to the Soviet nuclear arsenal. Three years ago, U.S. nuclear engineers and military personnel were dispatched to Kazakhstan to take from a poorly guarded warehouse enough highly enriched uranium to manufacture 25 nuclear weapons.
Terms of the sale require the U.S. and Moldovan governments to keep the price confidential, but U.S. authorities Tuesday could not hide their enthusiasm for the relatively low price they paid. Several officials familiar with the details said the cash to be transferred from the United States to Moldova is less than $50-million for all the planes, although the deal includes other forms of compensation.
"We are going to be in position to assist Moldova," Cohen said, citing the likely prospect of increased humanitarian aid and the probable delivery of used American military equipment from excess stockpiles. Cohen commended the leaders of Moldova and said the agreement "contributes to the enhanced climate of trust in relations between Moldova and the United States."
Money for the purchase is coming from unspent dollars in the Defense Department's cooperative threat reduction program, set up several years ago to help finance the dismantling of the former Soviet nuclear arsenal. Congress has approved $1.3-billion for the program since its inception, of which about $400-million has been spent.
A hilly agricultural country about the size of Maryland, Moldova served during the Cold War as a strategic Soviet military stronghold on the edge of the Balkans. The country has managed a relatively stable transition to independence, with the exception of the hard-line Communist enclave of Trans-Dniester, whose Russian-speaking Slavs have pressed _ with Russian army support _ for separate rule.