Monday, December 08, 2003

Israel gets new F-16I fighter/bomber

Pilots of the newest F-16I long-range fighter/bomber which is to roll off the assembly line in Texas Friday are itchy to get their hands on the $45 million jet.

Aerospace giant Lockheed Martin delivers the first F-16I at its plant here Friday to an Israeli delegation led by Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz, fresh from his talks in Washington.

The rollout ceremony marks the interim phase in this $4.5 billion dollar deal, the largest arms deal ever taken in the history of the state. Lockheed Martin won the tender, beating rival Boeing, in 1999 to supply 102 of the advanced fighter jets which are aimed at strengthening the IAF's long reach, being able to reach nations like Iran and Libya.

The aircraft have been supplemented to Israel's specifications and are different from any other F-16, even in the service of the US Air Force. They are being paid for from the annual US military grants given to Israel, which this year stands at about $2.2 billion.

The next phase is transporting the jets to Israel. The first is expected to arrive next month and gradually the whole squadron will be in place at the Ramon base deep in the Negev. A total of three squadrons will be delivered by 2008.

With the arrival of the 102 F-16Is, Israel will have a total of 362 of the jets – the largest fleet in any country in the world behind the United States. The F-16s are the backbone of the IAF, but these new "I" models will give added punch to the long-range capabilities of the IAF and will complement the squadron of F-15Is Israel received in the end of the 1990s.

The Air Force has nicknamed the F-16I as "Sufa," or thunderstorm. It has a 820 non-refueling radius of operation.

How Boeing blew it

Boeing finds itself the current poster child of bad management. Not only has its CEO, Phil Condit, been shown the door by a disgruntled board but its much-admired CFO, Mike Sears, has been sacked for hiring a Pentagon employee who may have helped Boeing land a lucrative air-tanker contract. Meanwhile, employees stole documents in order to get a peek at a competitor's bid for military satellite launches. Boeing's stature as the world's leading manufacturer of commercial airliners—the Boeing 747 stands with Coca-Cola and the Golden Arches as the best-known American products around the globe—has collapsed in a mere half-decade.

Boeing's plummet matters in a big way, and not just for Boeing. The company has long been a major exporter: A single order of 747s (most of which sell for around $200 million) is capable of putting a sizable dent in the U.S. trade deficit, which likely will surpass $500 billion for 2003. Those fat orders now are essentially gone. Sales of 747s have screeched to a halt since Airbus announced plans to build the 550-passenger A380, due to fly in early 2005.

What's more, building a modern jetliner is an ambitious technical undertaking, which requires engineering skills that benefit the entire economy. Earlier this year, for instance, two University of Buffalo researchers declared that commercial aviation is "the single most important sector in the U.S. economy in terms of skilled production jobs, value-added [to products] and exports." And the sheer visibility of Boeing's products has a kind of halo effect, enhancing America's status in a way that hamburgers and soft drinks do not. The sight of a European or Asian airport packed with 747s and 777s says one thing about the United States. Those same airports crammed with Airbus A340s—and, before long, with mammoth A380 superjumbo jets—say another. Boeing's diminished clout in commercial aviation is also bad news for the U.S. airline industry, which may soon find itself with only one viable source of aircraft: Airbus. Goodbye to all the sweet deals the airlines extracted from Boeing or Airbus when the two were fiercely competing.