Europeans call it the arms deal of the centuryand they may well be right. Some time this year, Belgium, Denmark, The Netherlands and Norwayfour NATO nations acting as a consortium will buy more than 350 new jet fighters to replace warplanes bought in the 1960s. France and the U.S. are battling fiercely for this sale because the eventual stakes are enormous. The consortium's purchase, involving an investment of at least $1.7 billion, is only the tip of a lucrative iceberg: a worldwide market for thousands of jets, spare parts and maintenance contracts worth more than $20 billion over the next decade.
The NATO consortium has been looking for a supersonic fighter capable of several missions: high-flying interception, close-in ground support and the interdiction of small warships near coasts. Above all, the purchasers want a plane they can afford to buy in quantity.
Pressures and Intrigue. Initially, five planes were competing for the consortium's order. They were SEPECAT's (a British-French joint company) Jaguar, Saab-Scania's Viggen from Sweden, France's Mirage F1/M53 made by Dassault-Brequet, and two U.S. products: General Dynamics' single-engine YF-16 and Northrop's twin-engine YF-17, nicknamed the Cobra.
The Jaguar was quickly eliminated because it is not fast enough (1.5 Mach). The Viggen stands little chance of being chosen because the NATO purchasers do not want to rely on the neutral Swedes for so important a component of their national arsenals. This left the French and Americans, whose planes are comparable in size, speed and cost. All three compete favorably with the Soviet Union's new MIG-23 Flogger and even with the MIG-25 Foxbat at altitudes up to 50,000 ft. Still, there are major differences (see chart).
The merits of the French and American planes, however, will not be the major consideration when the consortium decides. Instead, the four nations will be swayed by what one Pentagon official calls "technopolitics"a combination of economics, political pressure and diplomatic intrigue. Both Paris and Washington appear willing to make lucrative concessions to the purchasers. They have promised, for example, that much of the fabrication and assembly of the fighters would be in the factories of the consortium nations. The French, who now trail only the Americans and the Russians as a purveyor of the military hardware to the world, have been imploring the Belgians to consider their historical links with France. They reportedly have assured the Dutch that if they buy the Mirage, Paris will help clean the polluted Rhine and increase purchases of food products from The Netherlands. As in the past, the French have been raising the bogey of American dominance, arguing that if the YF-16 or YF-17 is chosen, Europe's aerospace industry may die. Certainly France's aircraft industry (employing 107,000 workers) and balance of payments will suffer if it loses the sale.