FARNBOROUGH, England -- Four decades after introducing the F-16, Lockheed Martin Corp. is facing increasing competition to upgrade the venerable fighter jet in countries around the world.
In 2012, BAE Systems Plc won a potentially $1.3 billion contract from the government of South Korea to upgrade 134 F-16s with new weapons and avionics systems, including digital cockpit displays and high-speed data connections.
Now, the London-based defense giant wants to challenge the Bethesda, Maryland-based contractor that manufactured the plane for the work in Asia, Europe and especially the Middle East -- a slice of the global defense market estimated at $10 billion over the next decade.
John Bean, vice president and general manager of global fighter programs for BAE's U.S. subsidiary, said the company expects to land over half of that business, in part by selling to Middle Eastern countries.
"We see a tremendous number of aircraft in that part of the world," he said during a briefing with reporters this week at the Farnborough International Airshow outside London.
Since the 1970s, Lockheed built more than 4,500 F-16s. Today, there are some 3,000 of the single-engine fighters flying in foreign armed forces. Of those, roughly 1,000 are more than 15 years old -- making them prime candidates for enhancements to avoid obsolescence. While the F-16 won't ever compete in the skies with newer jets like the F-22 or F-35, upgrading fourth-generation aircraft is far cheaper than buying fifth-generation jets.
Bean credits BAE's success in South Korea partly with having fewer buildings and an overall lighter infrastructural footprint, allowing it make a more competitive offer.
"We're believe we're very cost competitive, in part because the large [original equipment manufacturers] have to maintain a large factory to build all these new production aircraft," he said. "We don't have to have as much infrastructure."
Bean said BAE has dedicated 160 employees to the effort and hopes to compete for similar work in Greece and Singapore over the next year, Turkey over the next two years, and Egypt, Morocco and other countries over the next several years.
Lockheed is hitting back, arguing that it has delivered 1,000 F-16 upgrades over the life of the program and stands ready for the work, according to Bill McHenry, the company's head of business development for the effort. "Some companies are adding engineers and staffing up," he said at the show. "We have them in place."
Lockheed over the past couple of years merged engineers on the F-16 and F-22 programs to further heighten interoperability between the two aircraft, McKenry said.
The company took a hit earlier this year when the Air Force canceled planned F-16 improvements due to budget cuts. But it's on schedule to perform similar work in Taiwan, the first country abroad to select the latest version of the single-engine fighter, McHenry said. Known as the F-16V, the configuration includes active electronically scanned array radar, compatibility with fifth-generation warplanes and enhanced data processing.
While he acknowledged the company is "a big target" because of the sheer number of F-16s deployed around the world, McHenry said, "We bring a low-risk, wholly integrated approach."