Rafale is Front-runner for Colombia’s Kfir Replacement

 - December 24, 2022, 6:03 AM
Colombia’s Kfirs have often exercised with U.S. forces, including participation in the Red Flag exercise. (Photo: U.S. Air Force)

Colombia’s President Gustavo Petro has announced that the country will purchase new fighters to replace its elderly IAI Kfirs, despite saying that this was not a priority prior to assuming power in August. Moreover, a statement from the presidency said that Colombia has “pre-selected the French government’s offer for the sale of 16 [Dassault] Rafales,” but noted that “there are no signed contracts, it is a preliminary negotiation.” The estimated value is 15 billion pesos ($3.15 billion).

The South American country has received a number of offers, with the Lockheed Martin F-16V and Saab Gripen NG being the other main contenders. Also considered were new-build Eurofighter Typhoons, second-hand Tranche 1/2 Typhoons from Germany, and used Gripen Cs. However, the Rafale is considered “the best option for the country in terms of price, efficiency, and operability,” said defense minister Ivan Velasquez. The minister also said that the operating cost of the Rafale was 30 percent lower than that of the Kfir and that the French offer was cheaper than that for the F-16V, which had hitherto been seen as the front-runner to land the contract.

While scoring highly in most of the operational and cost assessments, the Rafale also offers MBDA Meteor long-range air-to-air missile capability. This includes the ability to be qualified for the large number of modern Israeli-made weapons that are held by the Fuerza Aérea Colombiana (FAC, Colombian air force), such as the Spice guided munition and i-Derby and Python 5 air-to-air missiles. Integration of these weapons was reportedly not on the table with the F-16 proposal.

A key factor may also be the rapid delivery schedule being offered by the French. The FAC’s Kfirs are desperately in need of replacement and are to be phased out from 2023. If, as expected, a Rafale contract is signed in early 2023, the first deliveries could begin before the end of the year. France has already shown in the Greek and Croatian Rafale deals its willingness to divert its own aircraft and production slots to provide early deliveries to export customers.

Colombia’s long association with the Kfir reaches back to 1989, when a batch of 12 former Israeli Kfir C.2s and a single TC.2 two-seater were acquired. These radar-less aircraft were subsequently modified to C.7 standard and then to C.12. In 2008 a batch of 24 Kfir C.10s—also known as the Kfir COA—was bought, this version featuring the Elta EL/M-2032 radar. From 2017 most were modified to Block 60 status with the EL/M-2052 AESA radar.

Colombia’s 23 surviving Kfirs fly with Escuadrón de Combate 111 at Palanquero. A number of them are more than 40 years old and, while the upgrades have kept them relevant in turns of equipment and armament, the airframes are increasingly difficult to maintain. As the fleet has aged the availability has decreased and operational costs have risen sharply, especially due to the difficulties associated with obtaining spares.