Sunday, May 30, 2004

Eurofighter – a model of European co-operation?

If ever there was an example of the pitfalls of European co-operation, it is the Eurofighter, now named the Typhoon, developed by a consortium of British, German, Italian and Spanish companies.

Hailed by its makers as: "Europe's great opportunity to lead the world in cost-effective technologies that can be applied to both commercial and defence programmes", it is over £5 billion over budget, near enough ten years late – with still no date set for squadron service – and beset by technical problems.

Although supposedly in the delivery phase to customer air forces, the latest embarrassment is that test pilots have been told to avoid flying through clouds because computer problems risked throwing the aircraft into a "catastrophic spin". It has also emerged that the flight computer has a tendency to switch from flight mode to ground mode while still in the air.

Even if these faults can be corrected – and some reports indicate that they are "unsolvable", the aircraft is three technological generations behind the US equivalent, lacking a stealth capability, swivel jet technology and advanced, multi-tasking avionics.

At the behest of that great Europhile Michael Heseltine, however, Britain was committed to the project in 1985, ordering 232 airframes. These were intended to combat the high-performance Soviet Mig and Sukhoi fighters in the latter stages of the Cold War.

Within four years, however, the Berlin wall had fallen and the Cold War was over, leaving Britain saddled with an increasingly expensive and under-performing white elephant. Never having been slow in the past to cancel aircraft projects – such as the TSR 2 and the supersonic 1154 VTOL fighter - this time Britain is locked into a multinational contract, from which escape would be more expensive than actually buying what is now unwanted merchandise.

Small surprise, therefore, to see reported in both the Sunday Telegraph and the Sunday Times, a report that the Ministry of Defence is seeking to sell off dozens of Typhoons before it has even received them in an attempt to avoid further embarrassment over the escalating cost of the project. It hopes to sell up to 50 of the aircraft to Austria and Singapore, which would be delivered before the Royal Air Force was equipped.

The aircraft, with an off-the-shelf cost of about £43 million each – but over £60 million each if development costs are taken into account - could even be sold off at a loss. That, in fact, may well be necessary, as the upgraded Lockheed Martin F 16 can be purchased for roughly a third of the price of a Typhoon, and has so far swept the board on export sales, with over 4,000 now having been sold.

Perversely, the whole idea of high-tech manned combat aircraft is now falling into disfavour, with the advent of highly capable "smart missiles" for air combat and ground strikes, plus the increasingly availability of unmanned, combat-capable drones. The advance in weapons technology and guidance systems, however, is really making the difference, allowing the use of basic, unsophisticated weapons platforms – to the extent that even transport aircraft can now be used for missions which, in the recent past, required high performance military aircraft.

But such are the inflexibilities of European co-operation, that, even when the world has changed so drastically that the project is no longer valid nor necessary, it goes marching on. Doesn’t this sound a bit like the European Union?

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