RAF may lease US jets if Tornado is scrapped

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The Independent Online
The prospect of leasing US warplanes and scrapping the British built Tornado F3 fighter is being actively considered by Michael Portillo, the Secretary of State for Defence.

There was confirmation in Whitehall last night that Mr Portillo is examining the military advantages of leasing US F16s or the F18 "Tomcat" aircraft over upgrading the ageing Tornado.

Although the decision has been made more urgent by the continued delays to the pounds 40bn Eurofighter project, claims that a US leasing arrangement could mean scaling down the British commitment to the European aircraft was strongly denied yesterday by defence sources. The UK order for the European aircraft, to be built by British Aerospace along with companies from Germany, Italy and Spain is for 250 Eurofighters.

Opponents of continuing with the Tornado, developed as a multi-role combat aircraft, argue that its limitations as a fighter were illustrated by the fact that it was kept back as a "second line" aircraft during the Gulf War. Tornados were based at Bahrain. There has been strong lobbying from the RAF for a higher performance replacement for the Tornado.

Although the leasing move would be controversial - and is likely to be the subject of fierce lobbying by British Aerospace, which would have the responsibility for upgrading the F3 - it has a "50-50 chance" of happening, according to sources within the Government. One advantage is said to be that it would make it easier for the MoD to lease other US aircraft in future.

Although the US aircraft are the most likely alternative to the Tornado, the French Mirage 2000, and the Russian MIG-29 and Su-27 are all seen by some military aircraft experts as being superior in performance to the Tornado.