Northrop Corp. said Wednesday that it expects that any Pentagon competition between its F-20 jet fighter and the General Dynamics F-16 will be a long-term and broad-based one.
A Pentagon plan to stage a limited, one-time competition between the F-20 and the F-16 is apparently not what Northrop had in mind when it proposed selling the F-20 to the U.S. Air Force.
Under Secretary of Defense William Taft has signaled in recent classified budget meetings that he wants only a single competition held for fiscal year 1987 that would award the winner all future orders planned by the Air Force, industry sources said.
If the Pentagon carries through with that proposal, Northrop's five-year effort to sell its privately developed military fighter could be in a riskier position.
Nevertheless, prospects for a sale of the fighter have brightened since last April, when the company made an unsolicited offer to sell the Air Force 396 aircraft at a fixed price of $15 million each.
Northrop believes that the F-20 sales effort is in a better position now than ever, despite the maneuvering over what type of competition to hold.
"In April, nobody had even thought about any competition. Now, in August, we are talking about what kind of competition to have," Northrop spokesman Les Daly said. "We are encouraged by the developments that they are actually going to hold a competition."
The Senate defense authorization bill for fiscal 1986 has called for a continuing competition between the F-20 and F-16. The House Senate Conference Committee has also called for a competition between tactical aircraft but did not specify what type of competition.
Northrop has been anticipating that any competition would be an annual, continuing event that would guarantee long-term competition for Air Force orders.
Northrop also believes that the competition should be based on price, performance and ability to support the product after its sale, and that it should cover all purchases of lightweight tactical fighters, not just a special category.
General Dynamics Chairman David Lewis said in April that General Dynamics "will do everything we can" to prevent Northrop from launching the F-20 into production. Northrop fears that General Dynamics could submit an especially low bid for one year to eliminate the F-20 and then recoup its losses in subsequent contracts.
Despite congressional support for the F-20, the Air Force and the Defense Department have been delaying a decision on it. Supporters of the aircraft interpret the delays as an indication of the Pentagon's ingrained opposition to buying the relatively low-cost aircraft.
Northrop said Wednesday that it still has not received a formal reply from the Pentagon on its sales offer of last April.
An Air Force spokesman said that Air Force Secretary Verne Orr had told Northrop that he would discuss the proposal at a meeting of the Defense Science Board, a classified meeting that occurred earlier this summer. The spokesman said he did not know what was decided at the meeting.