The spat between the USA and South Africa over the former's ambition to bid for the latter's fighter and helicopter requirements, and therefore have hooks in South African military technology and its export, has the veneer of the old East/West conflict. For many, it merely presages the rumblings of conflicts to come.

On the part of South Africa's new multiracial government the exclusion of the USA from bidding for its billion dollar-plus defence package - which covers naval systems, armour and aircraft and associated weapons - is a result of the White House's failure to lift sanctions inherited for the previous regime's arms embargo busting, coupled with the concern that a significant US procurement lays the purchaser beholden to the supplier and, therefore, its nation's political whims. Given the country's recent history, South Africa's government, not surprisingly, wants to tread, and maintain, an independent path.

The USA's original concern was with a previous South Africa, and its outgrowth, the apartheid regime's military industrial capability to bust arms sanctions. Now the concern is that while the apartheid regime has collapsed, the defence and aerospace sector it spawned has survived, if not flourished, and is searching for an alternative raison d'être. The South African government wants to use its ongoing procurement to pump prime its own industry, and it is likely that at least elements of the weapons systems bought will eventually be produced for the increasingly tight, but still lucrative, export market. At issue is that while the rest of the West's governments are willing to allow their defence aerospace manufacturers to accept South Africa's terms of the engagement, the USA isn't. For US manufacturers, and some of the world's largest and most powerful at that, be they Lockheed Martin, Boeing, or Kaman, this presents a major problem. The fact that Joe Modise, South Africa's defence minister, is extremely concerned that buying US means buying into US foreign policy, compounds the issue. Were this an isolated concern, justified or not, it could be treated as a one-off. Problematically, for both US industry and the White House, it is not.

A similar, if slightly more muted, battle is also being waged in the UK - arguably the USA's closest political ally - over the acquisition of a next generation beyond visual range air-to-air missile (BVRAAM) for the Royal Air Force. A Matra BAe Dynamics-led European consortium is fighting it out with the USA's Raytheon over providing a BVRAAM to the RAF. Perhaps the only ace in the former team's hand is the concern that a Raytheon buy would make aircraft such as the Eurofighter EF2000 vulnerable to the vagaries and whims of export policy emanating from Washington. Without a credible medium range active radar-guided air-to-air missile, the EF2000 would merely represent an extremely expensive, though highly capable, dogfighter.

While the bipolar Cold War scenario may have delineated clearly defence sales allegiances, the post-Cold War environment of a single superpower, the USA, operating in a multipolar world, may offer too great a hostage to a single fortune.

While US industry may have realised that future defence sales may be less rigid in terms of pure block allegiance, the US regime appears to have yet to fully grasp this. To many this may appear little more than an unbridled apology for arms manufacturers to sell irrespective of the end user, or its political impact. In fact it is a return to defence export policies covering the sale of conventional weaponry moderated more by commercial rather than simply by Nato-Warsaw Pact concerns, UN-embargoed countries aside, of course. The US manufacturers' inability to so far enter the fray in South Africa is being exploited to the full by the defence industries of those nations already bidding in. Given the limited number of large procurements on the horizon, this must be galling.

While South Africa's government will no doubt continue to be pressed by Washington to let its industry compete, US industry will be pushing the White House to put a little more distance between its policy on the sale of US weaponry and foreign policy objectives. It remains to be seen which will move first, or the furthest.

Source: Flight International