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.