BEIRUT – Bahrain is set to become the first country in the region to operate Lockheed’s F-16 Block 70 aircraft, in a move that will boost the Falcon’s production line.

Last November, Vice President Mike Pence announced the signature of a deal for the sale of 16 F-16s worth over $2.3 billion to the Gulf country, considering it a “big boost for American jobs and security.”

“We are pleased the Kingdom of Bahrain and the U.S. government have agreed to move forward with the sale of F-16 Block 70 aircraft for the Royal Bahraini Air Force,” said Rick Groesch, regional vice president of international business development at Lockheed Martin Aeronautics.

The F-16 Block 70 is the newest generation of Fighting Falcon. The core of its configuration (over the Block-50/52) is the AN/APG-83 active electronically-scanned array radar. The latest fourth-gen aircraft combines capability upgrades such as avionics architecture and structural upgrades to extend the life of the aircraft by more than 50 percent beyond that of previous production F-16s.

Although the number of aircraft has been reduced from a total of 19 to 16 units due to cost reduction policy, the sale “would save the shrinking F-16 line,” a military source has disclosed.

The source – who spoke on condition of anonymity – described the sale to Bahrain as “Lockheed’s pass to keep its F-16 production line open for the next three to five years.” In return, the RBAF is in a crucial need of upgrading its fleet to be able to keep up with other Gulf nations, the source continued.

“It’s a win-win situation; Bahrain needs the F-16 and the F-16 needs Bahrain.”

Bahrain was the first ever Gulf country to acquire and operate the F-16.

On potential new F-16 customers, Groesch stressed the company’s expanded efforts on keeping the production line open, noting that “Lockheed sees multiple opportunities totaling approximately 200 aircraft in Central Europe, the Mediterranean, Southeast Asia and South America.”

Last June, Lockheed and Tata Advanced Systems Limited (TASL) signed a landmark agreement affirming both companies intent to join hands to produce the F-16 Block 70 in India; this represents another milestone that will help the company’s vigorous attempt to keep the F-16 assembly line going.

However, with this deal, one Bahraini military official confirmed the country’s withdrawal from the Eurofighter Typhoon program. The European fighter was one of the main alternatives competing to join Bahrain’s air force, according to him.

“The decision is set and done. The Royal Bahraini Air Force won’t be operating the Typhoon anytime soon,” he said. “With a total of 16 brand new advanced F-16s and 20 upgraded Block 40 F-16 aircraft to the V configuration, the air force lost its need to operate a new kind of aircraft.”

Saudi Arabia, Oman and Kuwait are already regional customers for the jet built by Eurofighter consortium members Airbus, BAE Systems and Leonardo.

A Eurofighter spokesperson noted that, based on current orders, the typhoon will continue to be delivered until 2024.

“We continue to pursue a number of significant opportunities around the world and are confident that we will sell more Eurofighter Typhoon aircraft internationally,” said the spokesperson.

Military expert Naji Malaeb pointed out Bahrain’s lack of investment in military compared to other Gulf nations – especially Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Nonetheless, as this latest buy would indicate, “Bahrain is fully devoted to stick by its allies and counter Iran’s intervention in the region,” he noted.

In a study published last February, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) declared that all Arab states and the Gulf except Bahrain increased their major arms imports between 2007 and 2011 and between 2012 and 2016. Of the states with tense relations with Iran, Bahrain decreased its arms imports by 19 percent.

“The 16 strong-batch of Falcons aircraft ordered by Bahrain can be the start of a planned larger fleet for the air force,” Malaeb concluded.

Chirine Mouchantaf contributed stories on Middle East defense and wrote for SDArabia, an Arabic security and defense magazine.

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