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US general backs fighter sales to three Gulf states

The head of US Central Command Gen Lloyd Austin has declared his support for the sale of American fighter jets to Qatar, Kuwait and Bahrain.

Qatar is seeking Boeing F-15 Strike Eagles while Kuwait wants Boeing F/A-18 Strike Eagles. Bahrain, meanwhile, is keen to boost its inventory of Lockheed Martin F-16s.

However, the White House has been slow to respond, putting potential deals in jeopardy as Middle East nations warm to European fighter types like the Dassault Rafale and Eurofighter Typhoon.

A perceived threat to Israel and a nuclear agreement with Iran have further complicated matters.

Testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee on 8 March, Austin said he supports fighter sales to Qatar, Kuwait and Bahrain. He was responding to a question by committee chairman Sen John McCain, who has advocated for those pending deals to move forward.

Israel falls within the US European Command area of responsibility.

McCain expressed concerns about Russia's export of advanced military armaments to Iran, worth upward of $8 billion, he says.

"Certainly, that will enable them to have greater capabilities, our adversaries," Austin responded. "I will say, at the same time, the [Gulf Cooperation Council] countries have spent some $10 billion on military hardware during the same time period."

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Lockheed is promoting its latest Falcon variant, the F-16V

Lockheed Martin

Production of all three fourth-generation fighters — the F-15, F/A-18 and F-16 — has been winding down as the US military and 10 international customers move to the Lockheed F-35.

Boeing delivered 14 F-15s and 35 F/A-18s last year. Super Hornet assembly in St Louis, Missouri has dropped to two aircraft per month, with 24 deliveries expected in 2016.

Without more orders, Lockheed faces the end of F-16 production in Fort Worth, Texas, after more than four decades of continuous assembly and 4,500 aircraft built. Current orders keep that line going into late 2017.

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Boeing rolled out the first Australian EA-18G Growler in St Louis last year

James Drew/Flight International

Despite difficulty securing foreign orders with anyone but Australia, Boeing's mixed Super Hornet and EA-18G Growler line has been continued by the US Navy, which faces a strike fighter shortage because of delays bringing the F-35C into service.

Congress added funds in this fiscal year’s defence appropriations act for seven more Growlers and five more Super Hornets, and the navy has already begun the contracting process for those jets.

On 25 February, the service announced its intention to award Boeing a sole-source contract for those 12 aircraft, which will constitute the 40th F/A-18 production lot. Meanwhile, the navy funds two F/A-18s in its fiscal year 2017 budget submission and 14 in 2018.

In another positive sign, Super Hornets top seagoing service’s “unfunded priorities list” for 2017. The list was submitted to Congress last week. The navy is seeking another $1.5 billion to buy 14 more jets that were not funded in its base budget request for 2017.

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