IT WAS A BOLD STRIKE BY the U.S. Air Force, in the one theater where American supremacy has never been challenged: military procurement. Only the world's remaining superpower could rise to the challenge of buying 21 Soviet-era MiG-29 fighter jets it doesn't need, at several million dollars a copy, just so another country wouldn't get them instead. But for the men and women who sign the checks for the B-2 stealth bomber, it was all in a day's work.
The operation began last February when the former Soviet republic of Moldova, a nation of more than 4.4 million near the Black Sea, bounded by Romania and Ukraine, advised the United States that it was negotiating to sell what amounted to virtually the entire air force it inherited at independence. The prospective buyer: Iran, which already owned 30 MiG-29s, but none of the nuclear-capable S models, the most advanced fighter in the Soviet arsenal. Moldova had 14 MiG-29 S's, along with a few older models, and thought it could make better use of the cash they might bring--to buy, among other items, combat and military-transport helicopters. If Washington didn't want the planes to fall into Iranian hands, the Moldovans hinted, they were open to other offers.
Springing into action, the Pentagon began studying how it could buy the planes without directly asking Congress for the money, which would have run the risk of Republicans' charging that the administration was, in effect, giving in to a demand for ransom. A crack squadron of bureaucrats found an opening in the Cooperative Threat Reduction Act, which provides funds (some $1.8 billion since 1993) to help Russia and the former republics decommission nuclear weapons. Since the money was already appropriated, all the Pentagon had to do was hammer out a ""Cooperative Threat Reduction Accord'' for the sale of the planes and for future military cooperation--which the Moldovans, who wouldn't mind joining NATO someday, were only too happy to promise. And, of course, settle on a price, which was not disclosed but a senior official put at ""well under $100 million''--a tremendous coup, if accurate, since the going rate for a single MiG in the world market is a little more than $20 million. Even so, the mission was fraught with bureacratic peril. ""You don't even want to know'' about the turf fights and screw-ups the deal engendered, one weary official said last week, even as Defense Secretary William Cohen proudly announced the buy at a press conference. ""Let's just say it was a miracle the deal got done.''
But when the U.S. military wants to spend on something, nothing stands in its way! And someday it will figure out what to do with the MiGs, which were quietly disassembled last month, crated and flown to Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio. The MiG-29 S's, which have never been examined by American intelligence, are being stripped and studied; one or two may go to aircraft museums, and the rest may be sold to another country, presumably a friendlier one than Iran. So the whole deal might hardly cost the government anything, which is good news, considering that more than 1,250 MiG-29s are in service around the world, and the Russians are still building--and selling--them. But any rogue states with an eye to acquiring advanced weapons have been put on notice: when it comes to military hardware, America has never lost a bidding war.