Graham Warwick/WASHINGTON DC

Efforts by Saab and British Aerospace to sell the JAS39 Gripen combat aircraft to South Africa have been blocked by the USA. The companies remain optimistic that continuing negotiations on the resolution of a wider weapons dispute between the USA and South Africa will result in lifting of the ban, a move that could also open the competition to US fighter manufacturers.

The US Department of State denied Saab's request to re-export US technology in the Gripen, including its engine, because the deal would involve Armscor, the South African weapons procurement agency. US companies, including subcontractors on the Gripen, have been barred from dealing with Armscor since it was found guilty of sanctions busting and unauthorised re-export of US technology during the United Nations arms embargo against apartheid South Africa.

The US state department says that Armscor's debarment will be lifted when the agency demonstrates that it has established internal processes complying with US export rules. "We're headed that way, but we're not there yet," says the department. Industry sources say that a deal is close and was expected to be completed during a visit to South Africa by US vice-president Al Gore, postponed because of the tension over Iraq.

US president Bill Clinton is still scheduled to visit South Africa in March. US fighter manufacturers, meanwhile, are preparing to seek approval to market their aircraft to South Africa immediately Armscor's debarment is lifted.

South Africa has shortlisted three aircraft for its combat aircraft requirement: the Dassault Mirage 2000, Daimler-Benz Aerospace's proposed AT2000 and the Gripen.

Saab and marketing partner BAe have previously received assurances from the US Government that the Gripen would be allowed to compete on equal terms with the Boeing F-18 and Lockheed Martin F-16 in countries for which the US companies have been granted export licences.

These followed charges that the USA had withheld release of the AIM-120 AMRAAM for the Gripen so as to provide the F-16 and F-18 with an advantage in the Finnish fighter competition, which was won by the F-18.

Source: Flight International