Stealthy F-35 may replace the Portuguese fleet of F-16 AM/BM

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Back in 2017, Lockheed-Martin predicted that Spain, Belgium, and Switzerland would soon be placing orders for its F-35 fighter bombers, primarily targeting the European market. As we fast forward six years, Spain is still hesitant, but change seems inevitable.

Photo credit: Pixabay

Spain’s naval aviation is in dire need of a modern replacement for its aged AV-8B Harrier II. Encouragingly for Lockheed-Martin, other European countries have made favorable decisions. 

The F-35A emerged as a top contender in bids from Belgium, Switzerland, and Finland. Furthermore, the onset of the Ukrainian war prompted countries such as Germany, the Czech Republic, Greece, and Romania to opt for Lockheed-Martin-manufactured aircraft to refurbish their air forces. The expanding list of NATO member countries opting for these aircraft also includes Canada, and possibly Portugal shortly. 

Previously, Portugal did not seem like a probable customer for the F-35. The likelihood was that the Força Aérea Portuguesa would soon look to swap out the remaining twenty-seven F-16AM/BMs currently in operation for a newer model. Their proximity to Brazil sparked inklings of a potential deal with the JAS-39 Gripen E/F, given the established relationship between Saab and Embraer. However, that was not to be. 

Instead, on November 27, the Portuguese Air Force’s lead, General João Cartasho Alves, unveiled the “Air Force 5.3” revamp plan. Its components encompass the procurement of MALE drones, light attack aircraft, and fifth-generation fighter-bombers. The proposed drone, inferred from the “Air Force 5.3” plan, is the MQ-9 SkyGuardian manufactured by American firm General Atomics. It’s expected to significantly upgrade Portugal’s marine surveillance capabilities. 

Light attack aircraft also make an appearance as part of the new purchasing projects detailed in the military programming law passed by Lisbon last August. At first glance, the A-29N “Super Tucano” from Embraer appears to be the preferred choice. 

The F-16AM/BM’s fate, still in service, has been under scrutiny since at least 2019. The Ministry of Defense indicated back in October of that year that the remaining aircraft should remain operational until their replacement with fifth-gen models is realized. The final decision about this is due this decade. 

After confirming the F-35’s selection as the preferred choice, General Alves gave the go-ahead to the political leaders to finalize the modalities of this acquisition, probably for two squadrons, or 24 units. 

As the purchase of new combat aircraft was not included in the most recent version of Portugal’s military planning law, we should expect further updates when it gets revised in 2027.

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