The past year has seen a noticeable uptick in the number of countries opting to buy second-hand fighter jets for their air forces. Malaysia reportedly wants to expand its small fleet of eight F-18 Hornet fighter jets. However, it is not seeking additional Hornets from the United States. Instead, it hopes that Kuwait will agree to sell its fleet of F-18s.
Ikmal Hisham Abdul Aziz, Malaysia’s deputy defense minister, recently said Kuala Lumpur wants to buy all 33 Kuwaiti Hornets “lock, stock and barrel.” Acquiring the Kuwaiti fleet for the Royal Malaysian Air Force “will definitely increase the level of preparedness and capability of the RMAF in safeguarding the country’s airspace,” he added.
Kuwait’s Ministry of Defense denied reports that there were any negotiations about a potential sale of its F-18s stating that “any negotiations to sell ordnance owned by the ministry of defense would be declared directly.”
Several countries have recently either bought or sought second-hand fighters to bolster their air forces. In December, the Romanian Parliament approved the purchase of 32 used F-16s from Norway.
The Scandinavian country is replacing its fleet of F-16s with fifth-generation F-35s and is willing to sell its used F-16s to another NATO country. Romania presently operates 17 F-16s. Acquiring the Norwegian fighters would more than double the size of that fleet and enable Bucharest to replace its far older Soviet-era MiG-21 ‘Fishbed’ jets.
Croatia also operates antiquated MiG-21s. In November, Zagreb signed a deal with France to acquire 12 second-hand Dassault Rafale F3-R fighter jets from the French Air Force. France will order 12 new Rafale jets in 2023 to replace those former air force F3-Rs.
Denmark is also acquiring F-35s and plans to sell off its F-16s gradually. There was speculation, denied in Turkey’s pro-government press, that Ankara might be interested in purchasing those jets.
Turkey was banned from acquiring F-35s after it bought advanced Russian S-400 air defense missile systems. Now it wants to upgrade its F-16s so they can remain operational and up-to-date for the foreseeable future. As part of this effort, it has requested 40 advanced Block 70 F-16s from the United States along with 80 modernization kits for its existing fleet, that includes aged Block 30 F-16s that were first introduced in 1987.
Congress may not approve the deal given its objections to many policies of the incumbent Turkish government, including but not limited to its defense ties with Russia.
Furthermore, even if Turkey were interested in buying Danish F-16s, Copenhagen would not be allowed to sell them to Turkey without first getting Washington’s permission.
In 2006, Venezuela threatened to sell its fleet of 21 F-16s, acquired in the early 1980s, to Iran.
“Without the written consent of the United States, you can’t transfer these defense articles, and in this case F-16s, to a third country,” U.S. State Department spokesperson Sean McCormack warned Caracas at the time.
Greece is currently getting its existing fleet of F-16s and Mirage 2000s extensively upgraded. Last January, Greece also ordered 18 Rafales from France, 12 of which are second-hand, in a 2.5 billion euro (approximately $2.8 billion) deal.
In September, Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis revealed that the southern European country would buy six more, bringing the total number to 24.
In July, Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar derided Greece’s arms build-up when he said, “It is not possible to change the power balance with a few second-hand jets.”
The United Arab Emirates, which just ordered 80 sleek shiny new Rafale F4 jets from France, might also sell its upgraded Mirage 2000s to Greece, with which it has a defense pact, in the near future.
There has also been reasonable speculation that one reason Israel has not sought the new F-15EX for its air force is that it’s waiting for the opportunity to acquire older surplus second-hand F-15s. Getting those older used jets would be much cheaper for Israel, which could then reassemble and reconfigure them to meet its required specifications – something that country has extensive experience and expertise doing.
“If you can get 80% of what you absolutely need out of additional F-15s for 20% of the cost by acquiring second-hand jets, that may be a very hard proposition to pass up,” wrote Tyler Rogoway in The War Zone. (Emphasis in original.)
While older, second-hand jets are invariably cheaper, they can also come with airframes with reduced lifespans that could require more costly maintenance and spare parts than an unused fighter fresh off the assembly line.
Canada recently bought seven used F-18s from Australia to bolster its CF-18 fleet. The slow integration of these used jets into the country’s air force angered the Conservative opposition in the country.
Conservative defense critic James Bezan expressed particular outrage over the situation.
“This is strictly an exercise in futility,” he said in December 2020. “Here they are buying 18 rusted-out, old Aussie fighter jets, ones that the auditor general said not to buy … So why are we wasting taxpayer money and the resources of the Canadian Armed Forces to put these old planes into service?”
In 2018, Russia offered to sell India 21 used MiG-29 Fulcrums for a huge discount. New Delhi was skeptical about the offer, fearing that “hidden costs” would make the acquisition more costly over time.
Using a metaphor that aptly sums up the downside of procuring older second-hand fighters, sources at the time aptly compared that proposed MiG-29 deal to buying a printer. While the actual printer may not be all that expensive to buy, the ink cartridges needed to use it can prove prohibitively costly in the long run.
On the other hand, India is buying 24 second-hand Mirage 2000s from France to help supply its existing fleet of Mirages with 300 critical spare parts.
“Out of the 24 fighters, 13 are in complete condition with engine and airframe intact with eight of them (nearly half a squadron) ready to fly after servicing,” the Hindustan Times reported in September. “The remaining 11 fighters are partially complete but with fuel tanks and ejection seats, which will be scavenged to secure parts for IAF’s (Indian Air Force) two existing squadrons of the fighter.”