Defence experts 'mystified' by attack on EFA: The European Fighter Aircraft is too sophisticated, Germany claims. But the Treasury is allegedly saying the opposite. Christopher Bellamy reports

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The Independent Online
MINISTRY OF DEFENCE and industry sources said yesterday that they were mystified by reports that the Treasury had criticised the performance of the four- nation European Fighter Aircraft, which the RAF wants in service by the end of the century.

While Germany looks set to pull out of the project because it says the EFA is too sophisticated, the Treasury had allegedly said it was not sophisticated enough.

MoD and industry sources and defence experts yesterday insisted that the RAF needs a new aircraft by the end of the decade and that at this stage the EFA is the most cost-effective solution. The Italians, even stronger supporters of the project, need it sooner.

Scrapping the EFA would mean buying an aircraft from abroad or going back to the drawing board. This, senior defence sources said, would mean something that 'costs more and does less'.

The German government's argument - rejected by the German air force - is that the EFA was designed in the mid-1980s to meet the now defunct Warsaw Pact threat. That has changed, and the requirement with it.

But with the aircraft about to fly, reducing its performance will be an expensive business. Starting again would mean another five years' work, possibly eight, and probably cost as much as the work that had been scrapped.

Although the threat of a massive, co-ordinated attack from the East has gone, the aircraft which the EFA might have to fight in its 30-year life from the end of the century may be similar.

The EFA was designed primarily as an agile fighter to take on the MiG-29s and Su-27s escorting Soviet Backfire bombers attacking the UK. But like the American F-16 and F-15, it has been developed as a multi-role aircraft.

Russia continues to export military aircraft as a hard currency earner. The threat from that direction may have disappeared, and fewer aircraft may be needed, but the individual aircraft need to be just as good. The more capable the aircraft, the fewer are needed.

The MiG-29 has been widely exported. The Iraqi and former Yugoslav air forces have them in some numbers. The more advanced MiG-31 has been offered for sale and it is possible the MiG-33 may be seen in the West and available for export soon.

The most capable aircraft available to meet the RAF's needs is the US YF-22. This costs at least 60 per cent more than the EFA - possibly 100 per cent - and is highly sophisticated, making it unacceptable to those who say the EFA is 'too advanced'.

The YF-22 has a 90 per cent chance of winning an air-to-air battle as against 80 per cent for the EFA, a marginal superiority. Aircraft of the previous generation - the US F-15, F-16 and the Russian MiG-29 - are less capable and, even if bought off the shelf, may be more expensive initially or, in the case of the MiG- 29, difficult to maintain, with an unreliable supply of spare parts.

Halfway up the graph comes the EFA, which three studies - UK and German defence ministries, and industry - have agreed is the most cost-effective.

The Treasury is alleged to have been advised that it might be cheaper to buy a US aircraft and to have demanded the options are looked at again. But even Jonathan Aitken, the Minister for Defence Procurement, an 'EFA sceptic' when he took up the job, is now convinced that the EFA is the best value for money.

On the argument that the EFA is not sophisticated enough, defence industry sources said they were mystified. Although it is impossible to be sure until the aircraft flies, computer models indicate the EFA meets all the criteria laid down in the specification.

In response to claims that it was inferior in combat radius and radar performance to its competitors, one source said, 'it's not a combat radius-type aircraft'. The Tornado F-3 Air Defence Variant can operate more than 100 miles from its base and loiter for three to four hours. Although the details are secret, the EFA has a better performance than this.

It is also capable of short take- off and landing, meaning that it can be deployed to airfields further forward - of particular use in 'flash-fire' conflicts.

(Photograph omitted)