Chile's protracted competition for a new multirole fighter faces possible further delay. The final decision is being passed to an incoming government that faces growing pressure to overhaul the country's military-procurement system.

"We've already finished the technical evaluation-the final report has gone to the government," says air force commander-in-chief Gen Patricio Rios Ponce. Hopes of expediting a decision before the 11 March departure of President Eduardo Frie are rapidly fading.

Responsibility will fall instead to the socialist-led administration of president-elect Ricardo Lagos. According to local observers, there is growing opinion that the fighter decision should be put aside while the military's funding and organisation is reformed.

Under the Chilean system, each service is responsible for its procurements rather than a centrally co-ordinated defence ministry. The military is allocated 10% of the nation's revenue from copper sales to fund new equipment and the recent fall in copper prices has made long-term budgeting difficult, prompting calls for change.

Economic difficulties have cut the size of the planned fighter purchase from 24 to six aircraft in the initial phase, with the option to buy another six in annual increments of two. The air force wants to begin training with the first fighters in 2003 and to achieve an initial operation capability by 2005, but this hinges on a decision being taken soon, says Rios.

The air force has evaluated four aircraft - the Boeing F/A-18C/D, Dassault Mirage 2000-5MkII, Lockheed Martin F-16C/D and Saab/BAE Systems Gripen. "We never compared, say, the F-16 against the Mirage or Gripen. We evaluated the aircraft against requirements," says Rios.

Local industry sources suggest the decision has effectively been narrowed to two. Production of the F/A-18C/D is ending and the F/A-18E/F has not been released for export, while controversy over the UK's detention of former Chile President Augusto Pinochet has undermined the Gripen.

Source: Flight International