Billions at stake in fighter scramble: When the troubled Eurofighter takes off in air trials this week, there may be 40,000 UK jobs riding with it. David Bowen makes a pre-flight check

ON WEDNESDAY, a ceremony many believed would never happen will take place at British Aerospace's Warton site in Lancashire. Eurofighter 2000, more often known by the headline writers as 'troubled Eurofighter', will make its first formal flight - two years behind schedule and more than pounds 500m over budget.

It has flown before, but this is the full razzmatazz - a presentation in front of four defence ministers, hundreds of journalists and thousands of crossed fingers.

Nowhere will more fingers be crossed than among the delegations from the contractors and subcontractors whose prosperity depends on Eurofighter. It may or may not be a military necessity - the arguments bubble on - but it is close to being a commercial necessity.

For the little aircraft already employs 10,000 people in the UK, and when - or if - it goes into production that number will quadruple. 'It is,' according to a BAe spokesman, 'the single most important industrial project in the UK.' Not only will it create jobs and wealth, he said, it will keep Britain's technological edge honed in a way that no civilian project could hope to.

Like the Channel tunnel, it is an international venture that has faced more hurdles than David Hemery. But it is much more expensive: the development programme alone is costing the same as the tunnel - pounds 10bn - and construction costs are likely to be at least double that. So far the Ministry of Defence has spent two-thirds of its expected pounds 3.4bn development budget. According to one estimate, if the RAF gets the 250 planes it wants, the taxpayer will have to pay pounds 12bn.

Many people believe the project could still fall to the Treasury's scalpel. It is now pounds 573m over budget, according to new figures from the National Audit Office on Friday.

A string of technical problems were perhaps inevitable, given the cross-border committee nature of the development process. Development work has been strictly shared out according to pre-determined shares in the Eurofighter consortium: British Aerospace and Deutsche Aerospace have 33 per cent each, Alenia of Italy 21 per cent and the Spanish CASA 13 per cent. There is a parallel share-out between engine makers in the Eurojet group.

Not surprisingly, there have been problems fitting the bits: for example Deutsche Aerospace, which is responsible for the fly-by-wire control system, struggled long and hard to install the system's software, made by GEC-Marconi. There have also been demarcation disputes: while one wing is made by Italian contractors, there has been a squabble between Britain and Spain over who is responsible for the other one.

In 1992, Germany, faced with a much higher projected bill than it had expected, said it wanted to scrap Eurofighter and build a cheaper replacement. Eurofighter was designed to fight the Soviet Union and Volker Ruhe, the defence minister, said it was now too sophisticated to justify. The other partners scrabbled desperately to make him change his mind.

After a review body concluded that better organisation and excising frills could cut costs by up to 30 per cent, Mr Ruhe relented. But Germany decided to cut its order from 250 to 140 aircraft.

A British Aerospace spokesman said that the project is now 'romping away'. This may be wishful thinking, but a public and noisy commitment - such as the one on Wednesday augurs to be - must make it less likely that Eurofighter will go the way of the TSR2, the fighter cancelled by the Wilson government in the 1960s.

However, the contractors will not be able to uncross their fingers until the end of next year, when the four countries finally say how many aircraft they want to buy. The share of production work will depend on that number - Germany may go up from 140, the UK may come down from 250 - so there could also be last-minute adjustments to the workload.

(Photograph omitted)

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