Desperate For Sales, SAAB Gripen Again ‘Locks Horns’ With Lockheed Martin Jets For Lucrative Fighter Aircraft Deal

In a complete policy turnaround, the newly elected Colombian President has turned his attention toward replacing the aging air fleet of the South American country with modern and advanced fighter jets.

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The procurement of new fighter jets to replace the nation’s archaic Kfir fleet has been restarted by Colombian President Gustavo Petro. The decision is a departure from Petro’s earlier stated position that his government would not buy new military hardware.

Colombia’s air fleet is made up of the archaic Kfir fighter jets. The South American country has purchased 24 Kfir jets from Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) since 1989.

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The Lahav Division of IAI upgraded Colombia’s Kfir fleet between 2009 and 2017 to counteract Venezuela’s acquisition of Sukhoi Su-32 aircraft. Both Colombia and Venezuela remain marred in hostilities.

File:Colombia Kfir (cropped).jpg - Wikimedia Commons
Kfir fighter jet of the Colombian Air Force- Wikimedia Commons

The most recent modification to the Kfir, to the C-60 standard, involved the air-to-air, beyond-visual-range Derby weapon from Rafael Advanced Defense Systems, Elta Systems’ ELM-2032 active electronically scanned array radar, and a data link. According to IAI, that standard is comparable to the F-16 Block 52.

However, the sources accessed by DefenseNews informed that Carlos Córdoba, the chief of the Colombian Air Force, convinced the Colombian Defense Minister Iván Velásquez to replace the Kfir fleet, which will be phased out starting end of this year.

Back in 2019, Colombia was looking over proposals from the United States, Sweden, and Spain to replace its aging and dwindling Kfir fighter fleet.

At the time, the cost of replacing the 20 Kfir jets with new fighters was estimated to be $1 billion. Despite budget constraints, the then President Ivan Duque said he wanted to modernize the air force.

However, the current administration is starved for cash with a huge amount of debt to pay.

Additionally, the President is pushing for expenditures on social issues, and 25% of the nation’s annual budget is already earmarked for debt repayment. Against that backdrop, experts and security watchers have sounded a skeptical note, but in case the leader goes ahead with the purchase, he has quite a few options in his kitty.

Colombia’s Fighter Jet Options

Colombia previously received offers of secondhand Eurofighter Typhoon and Dassault Rafale fighters from Spain and France, respectively.

Not just that, Israel Aircraft Industries (IAI) also offered to sell surplus Israeli Air Force (IAF) F-16A/BC/Ds to Colombia. The Israeli offer included airframes that are held in storage and/or are soon to be retired, on the lines of the deal with Croatia under which 12 surplus F-16 aircraft were sold to the Croatian Air Force.

Previous reports have also indicated that the United States military had offered to sell the 15 most advanced F-16 combat jets, which could cause the Colombian exchequer a total of $300 million.

Manufactured by Lockheed Martin, the F-16 is one of the most widely used fighters in the world that is operational with more than two dozen Air Forces worldwide. In Latin America alone, the F-16s are part of the air fleets of Venezuela and Chile.

F-16 Viper: Lockheed Martin

The F-16s have undergone significant upgrades in the course of their lifetime. The F-16 Viper variant of the aircraft is the most advanced fourth-generation fighter jet in the world.

It can be deployed to suppress enemy air defenses (SEAD), air-to-ground, and air-to-air combat missions.

“Anytime we do a foreign military sale program with a nation, especially an airframe, it gives us a 40 to a 50-year relationship,” Croft told Foreign Policy magazine. Croft is Commander of US Air Forces Southern, the air component of overall US Southern Command.

Saab Gripen has also offered its 12 single-seat Gripen E and three double-seat Gripen-F to the Colombian Air Force as a replacement for the Kfir aircraft, as reported by Janes in 2019.

At the time, the Swedish manufacturer had stated that if selected, it would use its manufacturing facilities in Brazil to meet the requirement. The Gripen E/F is an enhanced variant of the multi-role Gripen C/D fighter jets.

File Image: Jas-39 Gripen Jets

The Colombian Air Force, even when offered double-engine fighters like the Rafale and Eurofighter Typhoons, seems to favor Lockheed Martin F-16 and Saab’s Gripens due to its preference for single-engine fighters.

The government has already been presented with offers for both brand-new aircraft in the newest models and used aircraft with updated features.

This would essentially mean that the Swedish Company would again compete against Lockheed Martin to sell an aircraft if the South American country decides to buy a brand-new fighter jet.