Italy has chosen the Lockheed Martin F-16 following a technical and operational evaluation to meet its interim fighter requirement.

The Italian air force needs to replace ageing Lockheed F-104ASAM Starfighters and has previously leased Panavia Tornado ADVs until sufficient Eurofighters are fully operational.

The choice has been endorsed by the Italian defence ministry procurement agency, and the defence minister is due to make an announcement within weeks. The deal will be a foreign military sale, with Lockheed Martin providing logistic support.

Italy will lease 30 Block 15 F-16ADFs and four Block 10 F-16Bs (and four Block 10 airframes as spares), at a cost of L1,600-1,800 billion ($784-882 million) - including training and support.

The seven year deal allows 45,000 flying hours. The first five fighters will be delivered by late 2003 with a Falcon-up structural enhancement and upgraded Pratt &Whitney F100-220E engines.

Defence ministry sources say the decision went to the F-16 because the air force requires a proven fighter, to be delivered quickly and at the lowest cost. The air force intends to pay for the interim fighter by the early retirement of the F-104s and the return of the 24 leased Tornados to the UK.

Other bids, at various times, were delivered by EADS, Russia and Thales offering various RSK MiG-29 based solutions; Greece with Dassault Mirage F1s; Dassault with new Mirage 2000-5s; and a UK/Eurofighter offer using the leased Tornados and early delivery of initial operational capability Eurofighters.

Only the Mirage 2000 gained significant support but using new aircraft pushed the cost to L3,000 billion and there was also a need to lease French air-to-air missiles.

The French, however, are not giving up and they will raise the issue during an Italian-French government meeting on 29 January.

The air force underlines that Eurofighter will be the future mainstay of its air defence, but says there is no desire to rush the fighter into service. The air force says a first fully operational Eurofighter squadron will be ready by 2008.

Source: Flight International