US Vice President Al Gore's planned visit to Lockheed Martin's Forth Worth, Texas, F-16 production line on 15 May was effectively a celebration of far more than a $7 billion sale of the aircraft to the United Arab Emirates (UAE). The event marks the closure of a threatening fissure between US defence manufacturers, the Department of Defense, and their political masters, which had jeopardised Lockheed Martin's clinching of the UAE contract. The significance of the victory will not be lost on the European defence aerospace industry, and should not be lost on its respective governments. Once again, European pretenders to the fighter throne have been knocked out by the incumbent champion.

The US giant had looked to the UAE as the launch customer for the Block 60 F-16, a technology bridge between the current generation of the Fighting Falcon and the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) - a contract still to be won by Lockheed Martin or its rival, Boeing. Launching the Block 60 would also provide an industrial bridge until JSF production came on stream, protecting employment for Lockheed Martin and its subcontractors: a point not lost on Gore and his Congressional entourage.

The deal, however, almost foundered on the rock of technology transfer. Lockheed Martin's bait of a significantly enhanced F-16 for the UAE was almost snatched away by the US military, which was loath to release certain key technologies into the region such as the active ray radar and the Raytheon AIM-120 Advanced Medium Range Air-to-Air Missile. Being relegated to second class citizenship did not rest easily with the UAE, so it very publicly allowed the Eurofighter EF2000 to re-enter a competition which in late 1996 it had been on the brink of awarding to the USA. The Block 60 and the Dassault Rafale had originally been shortlisted in 1996. While the French aircraft remained, on paper, in the running, the UAE had taken on board Norway's similar competition, and its decision to eliminate the Rafale, realistically leaving only the Block 60 and the EF2000.

There is no doubt that, in the wake of the UAE's opening the door to the EF2000, Lockheed Martin redoubled its efforts in disabusing the US Government of any notion that a Block 60 sale to the UAE should be sacrificed on the alter of technology release. Arguments about the control of military technology, irrespective of legitimacy, tend to pale beside the economic realities of keeping a production line alive.

President Bill Clinton was told last week of the F-16 decision by Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the deputy supreme commander of the UAE Armed Forces, during the latter's visit to Washington. This was the culmination of the Government working in concert with its industry in selling the USA. The end result is a partnership that allows Lockheed Martin to develop a highly advanced fighter that can enter forthcoming competitions in Europe and elsewhere, with a significantly lower price tag than that for either the Rafale or EF2000.

While European industry is now even more painfully aware of the need to consolidate in competing with the likes of Lockheed Martin, a single European defence aerospace entity would still lack a political champion of Clinton's stature.

Even a genuine consolidation of all of Europe's combat aircraft manufacturing capacity can only be half of the equation. A European industrial champion needs a political patron of equal stature to the occupier of the White House and it is unlikely that, in the near to mid-term, this role will be met by the President of the European Union. The only choice for Europe's embryonic fighter house is to get national state leaders to weigh in behind a single product champion.

The alternative is to push for an international mechanism for arms deals that defines what is allowable - or acceptable - in terms of technology transfer and political influence in support of industry in overseas contests. The only other option for a level playing field in negotiating significant arms contracts on the international market is for Europe to devise its own political strategy over how it competes. Failure to take up any of these choices will simply result in another round of market forecasts by its fighter aircraft manufacturers being thrown in the litter bin.

Source: Flight International