Does That F-16 Come With a Warranty?

What happens if the U.S. government sells you a lemon.

An argument about a 20-year-old military contract with Venezuela erupted this week after President Hugo Chavez said on Tuesday he might turn some U.S.-made F-16 fighter planes over to Cuba or China. Chavez says the Pentagon won’t sell spare parts or provide maintenance for 22 jets Venezuela purchased in the early 1980s. When you buy weapons from the United States, do you get a service contract?

In most cases, yes. The sale of fighter jets can be negotiated in one of two ways: Either the buyer country works out a deal with a U.S. contractor (with State Department and Pentagon approval), or it goes through the Pentagon’s Foreign Military Sales program. Contractors provide warranties and technical support as they would for any sale. The Pentagon also offers service agreements: According to a U.S. military guide for handling FMS transactions, “a newly purchased weapon system without follow-on logistics support rapidly takes on all of the characteristics of a museum piece—impressive, but inert, impotent, and immobile.”

To make sure their F-16s don’t end up in a museum, buyer countries typically get several years’ worth of spare parts with their purchase. (Subsequent spare-parts contracts are negotiated as needed.) They can also buy into long-term maintenance contracts, which include “repair and return” programs for any equipment that wears out. The standard contract provided by the Pentagon promises to “repair or replace at no extra cost” any items that are initially damaged or defective, but it does not ensure their continued function—long-term warranties for specific weapons cost extra.

An FMS contract often includes surcharges for packing, shipping, and handling that can amount to around 20 percent of the purchase price. If you go through the FMS system, you’ll also have to pay a 2.5 percent administrative surcharge to the government. The Pentagon accepts payment—in U.S. dollars only—via check or wire transfer. Checks should be made out to the “U.S. Treasury” with an identifying note: “Payment from Government of [country] for [FMS code].”

Almost every U.S. military sales contract also includes a prohibition on “third country transfers”: You’re not allowed to give the equipment you buy—or any classified information—to anyone else without special permission. Venezuela has now threatened to violate this provision on the grounds that the United States refused to work out a deal for more spare parts. Meanwhile, U.S. military officials say they’re not selling spare parts because Chavez won’t let them inspect his F-16s. (Many contracts give the Pentagon the right to check up on military equipment, to make sure the buyer hasn’t resold it without permission.)

This isn’t the first time the United States has stopped selling spare parts for military aircraft to a lapsed ally. After the 1979 revolution in Iran, the Pentagon cut off maintenance for a fleet of F-14s it had sold to the shah.

Bonus Explainer: Why did we sell F-16s to Venezuela in the first place? The Reagan administration offered the fleet to Venezuela in 1981—for $615 million, including spare parts, training, and technical help—after then-President Luis Herrera Campins showed support for the right-wing Duarte regime in El Salvador.

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Explainer thanks William Hartung of the Arms Trade Resource Center and Rachel Stohl of the Center for Defense Information.