Eurofighter: Jobs secured at a price by Europe's joint project

Click to follow
The Independent Online
Europe's biggest joint defence project to date got off the ground yesterday, though rather shakily. Imre Karacs reports from Bonn on the launch of Eurofighter, its high costs and the clouds ahead that may yet cause some turbulence.

Four defence ministers, from Britain, Italy, Germany and Spain put their signatures yesterday to the contract to build the war airplane of the next century. The ceremony, aptly, was held in Bonn, the capital of the last country to be persuaded by the project's merits.

Eurofighter was conceived in the Cold War days of 1983, and development took off in 1988, a year before the fall of the Berlin Wall. Apart from the inconvenience of the obvious enemy dropping out of sight, the project has been bedevilled by technical hitches, cost overruns and hesitating politicians.

The German government, unconvinced by the lobbyists' technical arguments, kept the other three participating countries waiting until last month.

The German end of the contract could still hit turbulence next year if the opposition Social Democrats win the elections in September. Though the SPD is itself divided over Eurofighter, the current leadership and the vast majority of Social Democrat MPs want the project scrapped.

Assuming that does not happen, 620 aircraft will be built in the countries concerned, at an estimated total cost of pounds 40bn. It will be the biggest single defence contract ever undertaken by the member countries.

Britain is set to pay pounds 16bn for 232 aircraft to replace the Tornado F3 and the Jaguar. Deliveries to the RAF will begin in 2002 and continue until 2014.

Germany is replacing the Phantom jet, as well as Mig-29s inherited from the GDR, with 180 Eurofighters. Italy will buy 121 and Spain 87.

This is quite a commitment to a piece of equipment which even its admirers admit is merely second best. The American F-22 Raptor, due to go into production early in the next century, will easily outmanoeuvre Eurofighter. But it will cost twice as much, and will create no jobs in the EU.

"This is the best plane at the right price," was how George Robertson, the Secretary of State for Defence, summed up the aircraft's virtues at yesterday's ceremony.

"This is one of the most modern and inspiring aircraft that could be produced," he gushed. "It is not only all European for European needs, but has the agility, power and versatility to deal with the varying challenges and risks we are going to face in the next 20 years."

Germany's defence minister, Volker Ruhe, also made the point that the project would help Europe's air and space industry to compete with the United States. "This will make thousands of jobs safe," he said.

A total of 100,000 jobs are said to depend on Eurofighter. In Britain alone, 14,000 people will work directly on the project, and another 26,000 are estimated to depend on it.

British industry is primarily involved in construction of the front end of the jet, the cockpit, the front canard wings, part of the main wings, the new EJ200 engines and much of the avionics, including the advanced new radar. Some 200 British companies, including GEC-Marconi, Dowty, Lucas, Martin Baker and Smiths Industries, are involved in the development of a range of equipment.

The aircraft will be assembled at British Aerospace sites in Lancashire from components manufactured by companies in the four partner nations. Rolls-Royce will manufacture the engines, primarily at plants in Bristol and Derby. In the other countries the respective partner companies will have assembly lines in Munich, Madrid and Turin.

Eurofighter is a twin-engined "multi-purpose" aircraft, capable of ground attacks as well as a more general defence role. The aircraft claims to have the world's most advanced radar for long-range detection, enabling pilots to detect and track numerous targets simultaneously.

The aircraft is aerodynamically unstable, necessitating advanced computer systems to keep it airborne. It will be equipped with an infra-red search and track system which will render "stealth" aircraft visible. It will be capable of flying at twice the speed of sound. Since March 1994, it has carried out more than 500 test flights.