AVIATION: Sweet Sixteen

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When four European NATO countries formed a consortium last year to buy 350 new lightweight fighter planes, a stiff competition ensued for what was quickly dubbed the "arms contract of the century." Last week the Defense Ministers of Belgium, Denmark, The Netherlands and Norway announced jointly that the best and least expensive contender for the prize was the $6 million American-built F16, designed and manufactured by General Dynamics Corp., the largest defense contractor in the U.S. Final approval by the four governments, expected by mid-May, will mean about $2.1 billion in sales for the St. Louis-based company.

The choice had seemed likely since January, when the U.S. Air Force ordered 650 F-16s for its own fleet. The fighter handles better than its chief competitors, the Swedish Viggen, built by Saab-Scania, and the Mirage F1-M53, built by the French firm Dassault-Breguet. The F-16 also appealed to the consortium because of the savings that would result from standardizing planes of U.S. and NATO forces.

Split Decision. The deal may still be partially upset by European domestic politics. Norway and Denmark have already chosen the F16, but the consortium may yet be split by Mirage-maker Marcel Dassault's offer of a discount to Belgium and The Netherlands if both countries buy the French fighter. Earlier versions of the Mirage make up at least half of Belgium's fighter fleet. The Belgian Socialist Party supports the French plane because a Dassault plant in that country employs more than 80 workers. The Dutch will make no official decision until after the congress of the Dutch Socialist Party convenes this week.

General Dynamics Chairman David Lewis is confident that all four governments will approve the F16. "We are delighted by this move toward NATO commonality," Lewis said, "particularly since it involves our plane." Even if the consortium does split, General Dynamics will probably remain the arms dealer of the century: sales to U.S. allies in the Middle East, Asia and Latin America could bring total orders for the F-16 to more than 3,000—worth in excess of $15 billion.