Andrzej Jeziorski/MUNICH

LOCKHEED MARTIN has become the first Western aircraft manufacturer to submit a firm offer to the Czech, Hungarian and Polish Governments to meet their fighter aircraft requirements - before a request for proposals has even been issued.

The US company says that F-16 programme vice-president Dain Hancock has handed over documentation in all three countries which, while falling short of an official proposal, outlines the "framework" of what the US company is prepared to offer in terms of hardware and co-operation.

According to Mac Stevenson, the company's business development director for Central Europe, Lockheed Martin is proposing new Block 50 or Block 52 F-16C/Ds, together with a 100% offset package. Stevenson claims that the Lockheed offer is the cheapest of all contenders - rival bidders are Dassault with the Mirage 2000-5, McDonnell Douglas with the F-18 and Saab with the JAS39 Gripen. Early this year, the US Air Force also submitted planning data on a lease and eventual purchase of used F-16A/Bs.

The F-16s are being offered at a $24 million each. "We would work with [the countries] to make the programme affordable. We believe we are 30% cheaper in programme cost than our closest competitor," says Stevenson.

He adds that a "wide range of possibilities" is being examined for industrial participation. According to sources close to the negotiations, Poland is keen to get an F-16 maintenance depot to cover the whole of Central Europe.

The Czech fighter procurement was recently thrown into doubt when defence minister, Miroslav Vyborny, appointed in June, publicly ruled out any purchase of Western fighter aircraft on the grounds of cost and revived plans for an upgrade of the air force's obsolescent Mikoyan MiG-21s.

The upgrade was frozen in 1995 after a struggle between then-defence minister Vilem Holan and the Czech parliament, which blocked Holan's attempts to proceed with the modernisation of 24 out of about 70 aircraft in the air force inventory. At that time, the two teams bidding for the upgrade were Israel Aircraft Industries with its Czech partners Letecke Opravarny Malesice and Letecke Opravarny Kbely, and Elbit, teamed with Aero Vodochody.

Now Vyborny appears to be drawing fresh battle lines after a meeting with Czech officers where he announced his intention to make deep cuts in the military.

In spite of that, the Czechs are believed to be interested in procuring about 20 fighters, with Hungary looking for 25 to 30, and Poland between 40 and 80.

Saab has also been stepping up pressure for a Gripen sale in Eastern Europe, with the Swedish air force undertaking a week-long detachment to the Papa air base in Hungary commencing on 9 September with four Saab JA37 and two SK-37 two-seat versions of the Viggen fighter.

The Hungarians will have a gap in their air-defence capability, probably starting in 1997, as their Mikoyan MiG-23s start to run out of airframe hours.

Although not confirmed, it is possible that the Hungarians have been offered a similar deal to the Poles - the loan of Viggens to fill the gap left by retiring aircraft until such time as local budgets can support a purchase of Gripens.

Additional reporting by Peter Foster.

Source: Flight International