Major aircraft firms from France, Sweden and the United States are currently competing for orders in what has become known as "the arms deal of the century".
Major aircraft firms from France, Sweden and the United States are currently competing for orders in what has become known as "the arms deal of the century". Belgium, Denmark, Holland and Norway -- all NATO members -- have jointly decided to replace the ageing F-104 Starfighters in their air forces and are now considering the latest financial offers from the makers of the United States General dynamics F-16, the French Dassault F-1 Mirage and the Swedish Saab-Scania Viggen 37.
The four countries together plan to buy 350 aircraft in a deal that will cost in the region of 3,000 million U.S. dollars (GBP1,250 million sterling).
At present, the combined air forces of the four countries contain over 300 Starfighter models of varying design. Denmark and Norway have considerable numbers of Canadian-produced Starfighters but many of these have been in operation since the early 1960s. The Starfighter record has not been good: the West German air force lost 171 expensive aircraft -- and many highly-trained pilots -- in less than twelve years. Because of this, the Starfighter became known in West Germany as the "widow maker" or the "flying coffin" ... and in the United States has been dubbed "the manned missile".
The F-104 has been overtaken in design, performance and speed in recent years. Its new competitors are among the most highly developed multi-mission aircraft so far produced in the West, and -- whichever is chosen -- will add considerably to the combined air strength of NATO in coming years.
The Saab-Scania Viggen 37 basic model can be easily adapted to fulfil the four primary air roles of attack, interception, reconnaissance and training. It has an extremely advanced aerodynamic contour, with delta-wing formation and distinctive "canard" foreplanes. Powered by the Volvo Flygmotor RM8A turbofan engine, plus a Swedish-developed afterburner and thrust reverser, the Viggen 37 can achieve a maximum speed of March 2.2 (more than twice the speed of sound) but can also cruise economically at extremely low altitudes. Because of its design and climb performance, the Swedish aircraft can be used from narrow runways of about 500 kilometres (1,640 feet) in length.
Saab's main problem is the fact that Sweden is not a NATO member. Political and economic factors -- as much as military requirements -- are affecting the choice of new aircraft. The company, and its partner, Volvo have offered non-aeronautic benefit schemes -- including a car factory and a lorry works in the countries involved -- to offset the cost of purchasing the Viggens.
A theme running throughout the offers made by all three Swedish, French and United States firms is participation in the development and production processes to offset purchase costs. General Dynamics have offered at least 50 percent production in Belgium, Denmark, Holland and Norway, plus the promise of 10 percent of the total production for the United States Air Force, and a corresponding proportion of the production work involved when the F-16 is ordered by other countries.
Informed sources believe that Norway and Denmark favour the General Dynamic's offer ... and the brand-new F-16. This aircraft was unveiled only eighteen months ago, the product of years of research. The cost of the revolutionary new lightweight swept-wing combat fighter -- which has a top speed of over Mach 2.2 (about 1500 miles per hour) is estimated at around three million dollars (1.3 million sterling) ... and is three to five times less expensive than comparable aircraft.
The French competitor -- the Dassault Mirage F-1 with the new M53 turbojet engine -- is more expensive. French Defence Minister Jacques Soufflet announced in January that the Mirage would cost about six million dollars (2.5 million sterling) ... but in return, the French are offering industry in Belgium, Denmark, Holland and Norway a total of about 70 percent of the manufacturing work on a planned run of 350 aircraft ... and the promise that total investment would be written off if the Mirage went into sufficient further production. The single-seater multi-mission aircraft, with cantilever shouldering monoplane, is designed to reach speeds of Mach 2.5 -- faster than its rivals. The Mirage F-1 is the latest in a line of French Mirage Fighters already proved a successful and viable combat craft, which has been sold to many countries throughout the world.
The French Government has been pressing the four purchasing countries into buying the Mirages on the grounds that this would contribute towards the formation of a common equipment basis for NATO armaments. Should Dassault clinch the deal, it would also mean that the survival of another European aircraft firm was virtually guaranteed. Belgium -- which already has a number of other Mirage models and is itself an aircraft manufacturer under licence -- is believed to favour the French offer.
Ministers from the four countries were due to meet on Monday (24 March) to make their final choice of new aircraft ... but last minute additional offers from each company has caused the meeting to be postponed until the beginning of April. For the aircraft manufacturer winning the contract for "the arms deal of the century, it could mean the beginning of years of work ... for there are an estimated 3,500 aircraft likely to be replaced in NATO alone in the coming ten years.