The good fighter guide . . . but do we really need one?

WHEN John Major said on Friday that Britain would be ready to supply 'air cover' over a United Nations land corridor to the starving citizens of Sarajevo, he made two very big assumptions.

First, that Britain wants, and is destined to play, a military role in the world that goes far beyond its own defence needs. Second, that it has the military means to play that role effectively.

Consider the implications of what the Prime Minister was saying. He was offering fighter aircraft to help protect the UN supply lines from the remnants of the former Yugoslav Air Force. The fighters would be Tornado F3s - by no means the world's best, and an aircraft deliberately kept out of the front line in the Gulf war. Nobody pretends that the Tornado is a hot fighter (although its ground-attack variant remains a formidable aircraft). If the Tornado has that reputation now, what will it look like in the year 2000 or 2005?

It is entirely possible that British forces will have been asked to fire shots in anger by then. As Malcolm Rifkind, the Secretary of State for Defence, said when he launched the 1992 Defence White Paper last Tuesday, the post-Cold War world is more unstable than the old. There is no single threat now, but lots of risks. The situation in what was once Yugoslavia is one such risk.

The RAF's possible opponent will probably have ex-Soviet aircraft - among the best being Soviet-built MiG-29s. That is why the RAF says it needs a new fighter for delivery around the end of the decade, one which may be in service until 2030. Much could have changed by then.

Until a couple of weeks ago, there was little doubt that the new plane would be the four-nation European Fighter Aircraft, whose development and production was shared between Britain, Germany, Italy and Spain. Now Germany has pulled out and Italian commitment may be wavering.

In Britain, few people are ambivalent: they are either passionately pro-EFA or dismiss it as an outmoded Cold War extravagance. But if the RAF is not to get the EFA, what should it get - or should it get nothing?

Those who are most knowledgeable about our fighter aircraft needs tend to be in the RAF or British Aerospace, the British contractor that was to build the forward fuselage and starboard wing. This makes impartial but informed opinion difficult to

find.

The main pressure on the project, in Britain and Germany, has been financial. As the former Defence Procurement Minister, Alan Clark, and others have said, the Treasury never liked EFA and its pounds 20bn development cost. With strong pressure on the Government's budget, nothing can be regarded as sacred. However, when it is alleged, as it was recently, that the Treasury was putting forward technical arguments against a piece of military equipment, things have become desperate.

The German Defence Minister, Volker Ruhe, argues that EFA was planned to meet a massive attack by Soviet bombers escorted by formidable fighters. So it was. EFA was designed first of all to knock out the fighters, without which the bombers would be sitting ducks. That has all changed, and so, Mr Ruhe says, there is no need for EFA.

EFA's supporters retort that the same types of opposing aircraft may be coming from Iraq, or Serbia, or Libya, or wherever. Desperate for hard currency, Russia will market its military hardware, including the competent MiG-29 and formidable MiG-31. A dollars 2bn deal between Russia and Iran is understood to be imminent, including the sale of 48 MiG-29s and 24 MiG-31s.

Last week, Mr Rifkind denied that Britain's military requirements had suddenly diverged from those of its EFA partners. Different requirements were always a factor, he said. But it is true that the EFA was conceived to meet a Soviet threat to Europe, and now, as Mr Rifkind admitted, Britain is looking for a new role, addressing its 'wider security interests' and those of its allies - in other words, a role outside the old Nato area. To do this, the RAF needs a potent fighter with a good range, preferably able to operate from short runways and the deck of an aircraft carrier.

Germany, Italy and Spain are not in the same position. Germany needs a new fighter too, but a short-range aircraft to defend its frontiers. Italy and Spain are worried about the latent threat from the south, but they do not have to go far to meet it.

Furthermore, when your fighters are operating in small numbers far from home, you have to have the best; the RAF feels that its new aeroplane must be able to outclass anything sent against it, especially since it may be outnumbered. Second-best equals dead. But if you are defending your own territory, twice as many cheap aircraft may be better value than a given number of expensive ones. The Swedish Gripen ('Griffin'), half the price of an EFA or an F- 15, exemplifies this.

France's strategic requirements are closest to Britain's. It is a medium-sized power that still thinks it has a worldwide role and residual colonial contacts. But France has its own aircraft, the Rafale ('squall', or 'hail', as in 'hail of bullets'). It will hope to sell these as a competitor to the EFA (although the EFA was primarily designed as a fighter to destroy other aeroplanes, whereas the Rafale is mainly a ground-attack aircraft). So the two European nations whose strategic requirements are the closest, and who might have most to gain by working together on a new fighter, are now competitors.

The RAF has still not acknowledged publicly that the EFA project is under threat. A strong lobbying operation from the Ministry of Defence, ably supported by Michael Heseltine, is arguing that savings can be made, that if one nation - Germany - falls by the wayside, extra costs can be offset by having fewer production lines. They may be right.

But the RAF is now looking at a few alternatives, all American. Top of the range is the F-22 Advanced Tactical Fighter. Two prototypes, called YF-22, have been built, but the full-blown F-22 will be arriving after the EFA. One solution to the RAF's problems, though not ideal, is an interim purchase of some F-15s, combined with a British share in the final development and manufacture of F-22. It is by no means clear that the Americans would be interested in letting Britain have this share. Another US option being considered by the RAF is the F/A-18EF, a development of the F-18 Hornet, but the improved aircraft does not exist yet.

But if the EFA should fall, even Mr Ruhe admits the Germans, too, need a new aircraft. German politicians, as Mr Rifkind said last week, 'for reasons we don't pretend to understand', wish to discontinue EFA and develop or buy another airplane. In the long run, that looks bound to be more expensive, but it is also a question of justifying the continued expenditure politically to a Germany considerably less gung-ho than the sometimes belligerent British.

The German Air Force still badly wants the EFA. The German Chief of the Air Staff said recently that 'the only alternative to EFA is fewer EFA'. But it is now unlikely to get that choice - unless Britain, Italy and Spain proceed without further German involvement, in which case Germany can always buy the aircraft 'off the shelf' sometime after the turn of the century.

The Germans have costed the various fighter alternatives. They naturally looked at the MiG-29s they had inherited from the former East German Air Force. But in spite of a widespread conviction in the media that the MiG-29 was a serious contender, the Germans decided that, as a design that would be 15 years old when it came into service, it would soon become obsolete. (That is not to say that the MiG-29 and Su-27 are not superb aircraft: they are surprisingly manoeuverable for their size, and are now used by Russian aerobatic teams.)

On the basis of the German costings, the EFA costs pounds 37m apiece, the F-15 pounds 42m, and an existing version of the F/A-18 pounds 30m. The excellent Russian aircraft were relatively cheap in themselves but there was the problem of obtaining spares from the increasingly chaotic former Soviet Union, and in practice those supplies might dry up - to say nothing of the difficulties of reconciling Russian computer systems with Western weaponry.

The MiG-29 was costed at pounds 26m. Although the Germans did not evaluate it, the bigger and more formidable Su-27 - the 'threat' benchmark used by Western fighter designers - would probably cost about pounds 30m.

The Germans also examined the Rafale - expensive for what it is, at pounds 42m, although some consider it the next best to the EFA. They did not cost the Swedish Gripen which most analysts consider too small to carry a decisive weapons load.

The Independent on Sunday canvassed a number of experts to evaluate the 10 aircraft that might possibly be European countries' future fighters; all were assessed for their strengths and weaknesses against the Su-27. The F-22 and EFA scored clear wins (they stand a 90 per cent and an 80 per cent chance, respectively, of beating any other aircraft in a straight fight). The F-15 and Rafale were on a par with the Su-27; and everything else lost. There is a real choice to be made.

The EFA's future is far from certain. It may survive; equally it may not, and will join the long list of treasured 'might-have-been' aircraft projects. But there is another long and powerful tradition in defence procurement: if you don't know the answer, 'push it to the right' - postpone the decision for as long as possible.

No major decisions about the EFA have to be taken until the New Year. Right now, in Germany and Britain, and probably elsewhere in Europe, the military planners will be looking at ways of extending the useful life of their existing aircraft, until times get better - and hoping that they are not asked to fight a real shooting war in the meantime.

All the estimated costs for the fighter aircraft on this page include an allowance for 20 years' spares and support from manufacturers.

The fighters' ratings from one to five for their ability in ground attack, air-to-air combat and self-defence are an average based on assessments by a panel of experts including Nick Cook and Charles Bickers of Jane's Information Group, Mike Gaines of Flight International, Christopher Bellamy, serving and former RAF personnel, and air industry sources.

(Photographs and graphics omitted)

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