Why The F-16 deal Isn’t Such a Good One – and Why “Retrofitting” Old Hardware is Better
This is a bit of old news, but I have had the opportunity to read about it, and at the same time, came across some documentation that really got me thinking: did we really need to spend 21 Bn Dirhams in buying that squadron of 24 F-16 Falcons?
I am no weapons expert, much less a hardware acquisition pundit. But I do not buy into the premise that on questions of defence, citizens and partisan politicians in Morocco should not be interested in one of these policy areas commonly referred to as “reserved domains”. After all, the Armed Forces are funded by the taxpayers. Open government applies also to defence, and it certainly does not weaken the Armed Forces’ stand with its citizens, quite the contrary.
It is quite strange that, across the political spectrum, almost all parties have someone in the leadership with some military experience: USFP former Premier, Abderrahamane Youssoufi, was part of the MLA-South High Command between 1957 and 1959, and so was Mohamed Bensaid Ait Idder. Mahjoubi Aherdane and late Abdelkrim Khatib, respectively MP and MPDC/PJD grandees, led MLA units in the Spanish sector in the North between 1955 and 1956. Ahmed Benjelloun, PADS leader, was part of the 1973 insurrection failure (and has benefitted from extensive military training abroad) Abdellah Kadiri, former PND leader (and currently at odds with PAM) is a former officer with the Armed Forces in the 1970s. There are other instance I might have overlooked, but the point is made: there are enough politicians, albeit ageing a bit, with some basic military knowledge to shape up a decent debate whenever defence policy issues come up; But it seems only too many politicians, with or without previous military experience, shy away from policies that sometimes involve dozens of billions of Dirhams, and do affect security on our borders and even beyond.
Because the military and security issues are muted on the political field, no one can attack liberals (and radicals) as “soft on defence”, but the standard (unsubstantiated) charge of un-patriotism usually trailing the left in Morocco can always pick up on this, would the public debate open up on a very secretive topic.
The four Moroccan students will train for a year and a half in the F-16, Block 42 aircraft here as part of their conversion from the F-5 to the F-16. Six additional student pilots are expected to arrive for upgrade training, as well as a limited number of maintenance personnel in specialties ranging from air frame to crew chiefs, according to Major Haase.
So, we can assume the Air Force is considering phasing out the F-5 Freedom Fighter and Tiger II. Will they throw them away? in all likelihood, no. The claim is made because up to 2010, the Moroccan ground forces still retain about 200 M-48 Patton Tanks in store, a vehicle designed and put into active duty with the United States army in 1953. The analogy here points out the seemingly incoherence in the policy of the whole purchasing hardware strategy: are we phasing out old hardware in favour of new units, or are we just piling up hardware overtime? Because when old equipment remains stored, it costs a lot and is not put much to use (save perhaps for some minor military manoeuvres or for training)
I came across some documentation about the F-5 project back in the early 1960: Washington needed specific military hardware to be issued to Allied countries in Asia, South America, as well as in Europe, where they would be best equipped to face the Warsaw Pact troops. The plane was so popular with NATO and Allied countries that Taiwan, Spain, Canada and South Korea managed to get licenses to build local versions. The Moroccan government can always negotiate with the American Congress and/or the White House to activate the in our favour, and transfer technology and license to build our own F-5 Fighters; We do enjoy the Major non-NATO ally status, so it is always feasible…
The idea is not far-fetched, and could actually benefit Morocco’s industry as well as defence potential: first, let us not be coy about it; Morocco bought these F-16 as a response to Algeria’s purchase of Sukhoï-30 Russian-made airplanes. Whether our Airforce needed the F-16 to balance things up is a matter of debate.
But let us consider the South Korean case: here’s a country with a more strenuous and quite bellicose relationship with its Northern neighbour, who retained nonetheless a considerable fleet of 194 F-5 in all its variants. While it is true their Air force retains 39 F-15 and 164 F-16, their fleet remains balanced and still relies on F-5s, as half of their fighter wings are made up of these. By contrast, the additional 24 Moroccan F-16 will not be as helpful as one might think; We will have 90 fighter aircrafts lined up, but logistics and poor interoperability will not allow the new squadrons to operate efficiently, so the gambit that these F-16s will impose Moroccan air superiority is seriously compromised. Finally, South Korea has another advantage to its Air force strength: it locally manufactures its F-16s as well as F-5s. Morocco doesn’t.
Furthermore, the F-5s has a proven record of good field operability, it is:
[…] suitable for various types of ground-support and aerial intercept missions, including those which would have to be conducted from sod fields in combat areas.
And considering potential theatre of operations in Morocco, that means desert field and poor maintenance conditions. Accounts point out that past a certain point in the airplane’s 8,000hrs service life:
As these aircraft age and operating conditions changed, the reliability of systems and components decreases, and failures occur more often, which increased maintenance costs. Increased failures affect aircraft maintainability, requiring more maintenance and often increasing repair times when more hard breaks occur. In the case of the F-16, operational usage had been more severe than design usage (eight times more), resulting in the acceleration of its airframe service life at a rate that may not let it reach its expected overall service life.
And since I assume we are not buying a new batch of F-16 any time soon, the option of retrofitting incumbent F-5s seem a less expensive course of action, considering the low $ 2.1Mln cost per aircraft. And it would be an even better idea to negotiate building a factory to manufacture locally-made F-5s; It would at least save a lot in terms of cash, hard currency and government budget.
There is another sale coming up, this time on transport planes -the Italian C-27J- a €130Mln deal with Alenia Aeronautica. According to the IISS 2010 Military Balance, they should be expected very soon. Why an Italian aircraft? why not upgraded versions of the 19 C-130 Herculeswe already have? What is the argument behind the purchase?
These observation I submit to the reader are made insofar public information is available. Perhaps there are other elements that weighted in and favoured the F-16 deal, among which a better offer and more convenient scheme to finance the planes. But the thing is, we need to get a debate going over how best we should equip our troops, not only to defend our borders, but also participate in overseas operations with the UN and NATO. And the retrofitting option should, in my opinion, be considered in the light of economic benefits implied in purchasing licenses.
We need to rationalize our equipment, instead of just piling on obsolete and spent hardware: the budget allocated to their maintenance is no public investment. Even operational or tactical requirements are a good reason to standardize ordinance and hardware: fewer logistical problems and stronger national defence; When these policies are implemented, there will be no need for national security cuts: costs will go down and free resources for more immediate and pressing issues.