Paul Lewis and Graham Warwick/WASHINGTON DC

Chile is expected to be the first country to request price and availability data on the Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet, initiating moves to release the upgraded fighter for export.

Boeing hopes to secure export release for the F/A-18E/F by year end, after the US Navy has completed its operational evaluation. A formal request from Chile would start the process of securing the necessary export approvals from the US Departments of Defense and State.

Talks are under way with the navy to agree the configuration that will be offered for export, says Bill Lawler, Boeing Military Aircraft and Missile Systems vice- president and general manager for business development. An active-array radar "will be part of the export package", he says.

Chile, along with the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland, had been considering the F/A-18C/D, production of which will end next year. Lawler says it would take orders for "40 to 50" C/Ds to make it worthwhile restarting the production line.

Until the F/A-18E/F is released for export, however, Boeing can only provide "public domain" information on the fighter. Normally, a new US combat aircraft is released for export only after it has been in service for two years.

"The navy is very supportive," says Lawler. "We've had interest expressed [in the F/A-18E/F] and both parties need to respond." Congressional approval for the US Navy's planned five-year purchase of 232 Super Hornets beginning next year, which looks certain, will clear the way for price and availability data to be firmed up.

The target is to offer the F/A-18E/F, priced at over $40 million a copy, for export delivery from 2005. While this is in line with the delivery timescales of potential customers, Lawler admits Boeing will have to persuade some nations to delay their decision deadlines.

Chile had planned to make its fighter decision by the end of July, before the E/F could be released for export, but it appears increasingly unlikely that a contract could be awarded ahead of the Chilean presidential election scheduled for the end of the year.

A delayed decision would open up an opportunity for Boeing to offer Chile the F/A-18E/F. As an interim solution, the US Navy has indicated that around 50 F/A-18A/Bs in desert storage could be made available for lease.

Lawler says Boeing has also provided information on the F/A-18E/F to Norway, which has just received bids on the shortlisted Eurofighter Typhoon and Lockheed Martin F-16. Norway has "expressed interest", but would have to re-open its fighter competition, he admits.

Source: Flight International