Helsinki: Almost immediately after the Eurofighter consortium distanced itself from the Norwegian fighter replacement programme in December last year, citing alterations in the bidding process as favouring the US JSF-35 programme, it is now the turn of the US to cry foul saying that the process may actually be skewed in favour of the Swedish JAS-39 Gripen-N programme.
Post-withdrawal of the Eurofighter Typhoon fighter from the competition, the Lockheed Martin JSF-35 and the Saab JAS-39 Gripen-N fighters are now in contention for the Norwegian Armed Force's (NAF) $8 billion fighter replacement programme. The programme intends to replace ageing F-16 fighters in the NAF fleet.
A decision is expected by the end of the year.
With the American government expressing its concern, Norwegian defence minister Anne Grete Stroem-Erichsen denied that the government had already decided on the type of fighter aircraft it wanted to buy. She has informed Cabinet colleagues that no decision has been made and that the contest remains ''very much open.''
''We have always said that the government would make its decision on the type of jet fighter aircraft to acquire in 2008. Two bidders remain and there are no firm favourites, and no final decision has been taken. This is still very much an open contest, and all bidders should understand this and be reassured that they are in a process which is still open,'' said Stroem-Erichsen.
Benson Whitney, the US ambassador to Norway, expressed his concerns publicly early on this month saying that Norway risked losing its present high level of military collaboration with the United States if it chose the JAS Gripen over Lockheed Martin's F-35.
''It is, of course, up to the Stortinget [Norway's parliament], the government and the people of Norway to decide about defence, and relations with the United States,'' Whitney said. ''Choosing a Swedish fighter may mean less contact between the Norwegian and American military. Hundreds of Norwegian pilots have trained in America, and dozens of Americans have come to Norway to train with Norwegian pilots - we don't want to lose that contact.''
Most Norwegian fighter pilots, who fly F-16s, have done their training in the United States.
''If the future fighter is Swedish, Norwegian pilots will train in Sweden rather than the United States,'' Whitney said.
US concerns have come to the fore amid efforts by Norway and Sweden to increase their defence cooperation, including the possible establishment of joint army, naval and air force units and potential common procurement programmes for major defence equipment.
Norwegian government sources have been quoted in the media as saying that very likely a landmark agreement between Norway and Sweden may come about in 2008 that would involve an unprecedented level of collaboration between the defence forces of each country.
Such cooperation would involve interoperability of equipment as a key issue.
Under such a joint military programme, sources said, two or more Nordic nations, most probably Sweden and Norway, will establish a common fighter unit to police their national airspace or participate in international operations.
Such an eventuality may be the reason for the withdrawal of the Eurofighter consortium from the bidding process.