Fort Worth Star-Telegram

Pakistani, U.S. officials on hand in Fort Worth for F-16 ceremonies



For the first time in two decades, Pakistan’s air force is about to get new F-16 fighter jets.

Pakistani military and government officials were on hand Tuesday at Lockheed Martin Aeronautics Co. in Fort Worth for ceremonies unveiling the first of 18 new F-16s to be delivered in the next year.

And to highlight the continuing value of the F-16 to Lockheed and Fort Worth, the Defense Department announced that it had notified Congress of a possible sale of 24 F-16s to Egypt, along with spare engines, radars and weapons, a deal potentially worth about $3.2 billion.

The Pakistan jet sale, worth roughly $2 billion, was authorized in 2006 by President George W. Bush. It was the first to Pakistan since 1990, when then-President George H.W. Bush cut off delivery of 28 previously purchased planes over the country’s nuclear weapons development program.

"Many people thought this day would never come," Pakistan’s ambassador to the U.S., Husain Haqqani, said in remarks at the ceremony. "It’s a historic and defining moment."

The U.S. and Pakistan, Haqqani said, "are democracies struggling to protect the world against terrorism and protecting us from those who would take our freedom."

The resumption of F-16 sales was opposed by some members of Congress, denounced by India and at times threatened by lagging payments to Lockheed.

"This journey was long, difficult, challenging and sometimes frustrating," said Rep. Kay Granger, Fort Worth, whose district includes the Lockheed plant.

Granger said Pakistan "is the point of the spear" in U.S. efforts to combat terrorism in Afghanistan and elsewhere. She said the U.S. and Pakistan have "a growing relationship that will last for decades to come."

Pakistan is buying 18 F-16C Block 52 jets, one of the most capable versions of the aircraft, which is flown by the U.S. Air Force and numerous other countries.

In addition, Lockheed is producing modernization and upgrade kits for 35 of Pakistan’s 1980s-era F-16As. The kits will provide the same radar, digital mission computers and modern digital instrumentation systems as the new aircraft. Four aircraft will be upgraded in Fort Worth, with the rest of the kits shipped to Pakistan to be installed there.

The head of Pakistan’s air force, Air Chief Marshal Rao Qamar Suleman, said that nation’s F-16s have proved valuable in making precision attacks on Al Qaeda and Taliban extremists that operate out of the rugged mountainous region between Pakistan and Afghanistan.

At the end of June, Lockheed had a backlog of 87 unfilled F-16 orders, enough to keep the Fort Worth assembly line operating through about 2012. Lockheed has about 2,100 Fort Worth employees directly tied to the F-16 program and several hundred others who provide varying degrees of support.

Additional sales to Egypt, should they occur, would add to the backlog. The Obama administration signaled to the Egyptian government this year that it would look favorably upon a request to buy additional F-16s. Egypt has already taken delivery of 220 F-16s since 1982.

Before Tuesday’s Egypt announcement, John Larson, Lockheed’s vice president of the F-16 program, said he was "very optimistic about additional F-16 sales. There are a number of government-to-government discussions going on now that we’re pretty confident will result in orders."

The biggest potential source of business is Pakistan’s neighbor and historical enemy, India, which is holding a competition to buy 126 fighter jets. Lockheed is competing for that business, as is Boeing with its F/A-18 Super Hornet, along with several foreign aircraft manufacturers.