Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Hugo's Used Fighter Sale

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez is taking another poke at the Uncle Sam. He's threatening to sell his nation's small fleet of F-16 fighters to Iran, apparently in retaliation for a U.S. ban on arms sales to his government.

General Alberto Mueller, an advisor to Chavez, has recommended to the defense minister that Venezuela sell its 21 F-16s to another country. Mueller said he thought it was worthwhile to consider "the feasibility of a negotiation with Iran for the sale of those planes." The comments came one day after the U.S. announced a ban on additional arms sales to Venezuela, which totaled $34 million last year. Before the ban was announced, Washington had been putting a slow squeeze on Venezuela's access to American military technology. Previously, the U.S. had refused Caracas's request for upgrades to its F-16s, the most capable fighter in the Venezuelan inventory. Members of the Chavez government have also suggested that Venezuela might "share" its F-16s with Cuba, in response to the U.S. arms ban.

Short of military action, there really isn't much we can do to block the F-16 transfer to Iran or Cuba, if Chavez decides to go ahead with the deal. But careful observers will note that neither Tehran or Havana is exactly jumping up and down at the prospect of obtaining Yanqui F-16s.

And with good reason. The F-16 is more than a sleek, 80s-era fighter jet. It's a complete weapons system. If you plan to operate the F-16, you'll need simulators, extensive training, infrastructure upgrades and a massive inventory of spare parts, among other things. Needless to say, those "extras" don't come cheap. Beyond that, there's the question of where you can actually obtain the stuff you need to operate an F-16 squadron. Limited quantities of spare parts and munitions can be purchased on the gray market, and Venezuela could provide some assistance in flight and maintenance instruction; but to make the jets fully operational, a customer needs access to U.S. contractor support and technical data, which (in turn) requires approval of the U.S. government. Obviously, George Bush and Don Rumsfeld aren't about to sign off on an F-16 transfer to Iran or Cuba.

What about other countries who have F-16s? Well, if those countries want continued access to U.S. military hardware, they can't afford to get caught in an illegal arms transfer involving a pariah state. True, there are some exceptions to this rule (Israel's transfer of F-16 technology to China in the Lavi/F-10 program comes to mind), but it's doubtful that any current U.S. customer--especially those with a desire for future arms sales--would accept the risks entailed in supporting an illegal sale of the Venezuelan jets.

Additionally, the Iranians and Cubans already have access to fourth-generation fighter technology, thanks to their acquisition of MiG-29 FULCRUMs from Russia. The FULCRUMs y in the Iranian and Cuban inventories are, in some ways, more sophisticated than the early-generation F-16s that Hugo is trying to unload. Iran and Cuba have something else in common, too: both have had difficulty in keeping their FULCRUMs in the air, despite full access to Russian training and technical support. Without similar assistance for the F-16s, those jets would become little more than ramp decorations at some Iranian or Cuban base, slowly rusting in the sun.

Case in point: remember those Iraqi aircraft that were flown to Iran at the end of Operation Desert Storm? To date, only a handful of those fighters have returned to operational service, and only with support from the Russians. French-built Iraqi aircraft (notably Mirage F-1s) have fared even worse, spending years on the tarmac before the Iranians managed to get a few airborne. Today, most are back on the ramp, grounded by a lack of spare parts, maintenance and qualified pilots.

It's also worth remembering that simply having a fourth-generation fighter doesn't give you state-of-the-art employment capabilities. Tactically, Iranian and Cuban fighter pilots are no match for their western counterparts, and that axiom holds true for whatever airframe they might operate, including the F-16. It takes years of effort to develop the doctrine and tactics required to maximize the F-16's combat capabilities, and that's something the Venezuelans simply don't have.

Mr. Chavez may be having a fire sale down at the ol' used fighter lot, but he's going to find a dearth of serious buyers, even among our adversaries. Havana and Tehran may kick the tires a few times, but they're unlikely to conclude a deal to acquire the F-16s. Like other countries, Cuba and Iran want useable combat systems--not expensive toys that simply fill up an aircraft parking ramp. One year from now, you're likely to find Hugo's F-16s in the same spot they currently occupy--on the tarmac at a Venezuelan Air Force base.

12 comments:

Eagle1 said...

Nice work!

Made you my link on this topic.

Promethea said...

Excellent analysis. You are *already* on my link bar.

When I read the original article, I immediately remembered the Egyptian airplanes on the tarmacs in 1967.

To avoid this fate, I suppose the Iranians could bury the Venezuelan F-16s the way Saddam buried some of his aircraft to hide them from the U.S.

Papa Ray said...

If you believe the available material on Iran's Air Force, they have a few operational aircraft of various US and Russian mfg, but not many of any of them.

But knowing what I think I know, most Intel that is published is not only old but not reliable for any number of reasons.

I would hope that insiders (that don't leak) really know what is operational and what the have in way of upgrades.

Mirrors, smoke and more. Are we really the most powerful nation in the world that has a second rate intelligence force?

Papa Ray
West Texas
USA

crosspatch said...

I would have to wonder how they would get the planes there in the first place. They would probably have to take them apart and send them by sea transport. Then they would have to hope nothing breaks in the disassembly/shipment/reassembly cycle because parts are going to be tough to get.

My guess is that this is just more emtional button pushing by Chavez.

usually mellow said...

I would have to wonder how they would get the planes there in the first place. They would probably have to take them apart and send them by sea transport.

I thought the Venezuelans and Iranians would be able to fly them from South America to the Middle East nonstop with in-flight refueling waypoints...

The US can launch B-2's from Whitman and fly nonstop halfway around the world, accomplish their mission, return nonstop and be home in time for dinner the next day. That's superiority.

crosspatch said...

Does either Iran or Venezuela have operational in-flight refueling capability? I know Venezuela had to bow out of joint exercises with Brazil recently because they didn't have enough operational equipment and Chavez seems to be putting all his money in the Bolivar Militias instead of the regular forces. In other words, he seems to be building a personal protection force to keep himself in power for the next 25 years or so at the expense of his regular forces. Simply having tankers doesn't mean they have the operational capability.

It's about 4000 miles from Venezuela to Morocco which means there would have to be at least one mid-Atlantic refuling before planes could land for refuling in Africa.

I know Venezuela has or had at least 12 KC-135's but I don't know how many are currently operational.

Mr Bob said...

I wonder how many manufacturers there are of parts? Venz. is selling them because we won't help them maintain them, don't think we'd help Iran either!

crosspatch said...

The export to Venezuela was more about political and symbolic function than an operational imperative. When Venezuela bought their F-16s without a viable maintenance or training program, the aircraft were reduced to symbolic function only — their operational teeth were missing (along with the logistical tail).


Venezuela has 21 Reagan era 16's. Israel has hundreds of them, almost all of them more modern than the ones Venezuela has. I say go ahead and give them to Iran, it's won't amount to a pinch of owl scat.

Mark said...

Nice work! You would think Iran would have learned their lesson with the F-14's leftover from the shah. They can't get parts, they can't keep them in the air, they can train pilots to fly them. Why buy fighters you KNOW you're not going to be able to fly when you can buy fighters you PROBABLY won't be able to fly from Russia?

A.M. Mora y Leon said...

First rate analysis.

Here is a pictoral depiction from Venezuela which pretty much says about the same thing.

Eeeeuw!

unaha-closp said...

Effect of the US sanctions. Cost Armerican manufacturers $34 million in sales, probably force a rich socialist state to equip itself with a modern strike airforce (eurofighter or Su-31) and remove military cooperation with same. For a reward of eliminating a 20 year old non-threatening strike airforce and grandstanding a message to the world.

Dan M said...

This is a PERFECT opportunity for dealing with Chavez once and for all.

And it should be so seen, and seized upon.