Outlook: The lunacy of the Eurofighter

It seems doubtful that George Robertson, the Secretary of State for Defence, has much in common with his predecessor, Michael Portillo. But one thing they do seem to share is a passion for the Eurofighter, another of those costly pan-European enterprises which appears to owe its continued existence more to the purpose of demonstrating that European countries and companies are capable of co-operating with each other than anything as banal as defence of the realm.

Mr Portillo so much wanted these deadly little toys that, throwing all his rattles out of the pram, he once said Britain would go ahead with the project even if the Germans pulled out. This could have proved a mighty costly piece of bravado had the Germans decided to call his bluff, for the fact of the matter is that Britain cannot afford to fund the whole thing itself. Perhaps fortunately, Mr Portillo wasn't around long enough to find out what Helmut Kohl was really thinking. Mr Robertson has adopted the more diplomatic approach of attempting, with apparent success, to bring the Germans onside.

In an Alice in Wonderland sort of way, this is quite an achievement. The point has already been made that we couldn't afford to go it alone, but nor does it make sense any longer to abandon the project altogether, since Britain and her partners have already spent so much on it. Thousands of high tech jobs depend on the Eurofighter going ahead, as arguably does the future of our aerospace industry.

Despite the fact that the original military purpose of this aircraft, to shoot down the fighters protecting Russian nuclear bombers, doesn't exist any longer, the time for abandoning the Eurofighter has probably past too. The problem with weapons has always been that of obsolescence. Besides, our boys in the RAF need something to fly around in for the next millennium and it just wouldn't be the same if we were forced to buy American.

The US is prone to speak an awful lot of guff about its wonderful free market economy. Through its defence budget, the US Government provides massive state support for industry and technological advancement. Why shouldn't Europe do the same? The F22, the US equivalent of the Eurofighter, is costing the Pentagon twice as much per aircraft as the Eurofighter will cost the Treasury. Though it seems to be a superior fighter with more advanced technology, it is none the less a US controlled product and it might not be entirely wise to rely on the US for all our weaponry.

All the same, there is something peculiarly odd about the sight of George Robertson and his German counterpart desperately attempting to justify something they know in their hearts belongs to a bygone age. To judge by their remarks yesterday as they formally gave the go ahead for 620 of the fighters to be built, the main justification for this thing has become not so much the protection of Europe, but of jobs and the desire to compete on an equal footing with the Americans on all things military. Both goals might reasonably seem as out of date and obsolete as the product itself.

Had not so much already been spent on the Eurofighter, nobody would now be choosing to spend so much more. The end of the Cold War and the globalisation of the world economy have changed things fundamentally since the Eurofighter was first conceived. We live in an era which in this respect is much more like the Renaissance than the one we have just passed through - an era of mercenaries and weapons for hire. Given the existence of viable alternatives, the Eurofighter would never have been built if the decision had been left to the markets. But then governments never have been good at making commercial decisions.

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