Germans back new fighter aircraft

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The Independent Online
BRUSSELS - The European Fighter Aircraft rose from the ashes last night after a U-turn by Germany, which had seemed determined to withdraw from the project. At the Nato meeting where Germany was expected to signal its withdrawal from the programme, defence ministers of the four countries - Britain, Germany, Italy and Spain - agreed to proceed with the modified aircraft.

The four ministers agreed that the production phase for 'Eurofighter 2000' should be deferred, but with work beginning in time to meet the dates of the air forces needing the plane in 2000 - including the RAF.

The ministers said the dramatic change in the strategic situation 'requires a new assessment with regards to air defence in general with a possibility of significant reductions in the operation requirements for a new fighter aircraft'.

Between 12 and 20 per cent of the savings are common to all four countries, and result from economies in production methods. Further savings, up to a possible 30 per cent, result from reducing the aircraft's technical requirements.

The project has already spent pounds 5bn on development out of a total of pounds 8bn, to which Germany is once again firmly committed. Bonn could still decide not to participate in production, but senior sources here say this would mean other countries building a fully developed aircraft while Germany would have wasted its investment.

Germany's Defence Minister, Volker Ruhe, tried to take Germany out of the project, arguing that with the end of the Cold War a less capable aircraft was needed and that the cost of each plane should be reduced to DM90m (pounds 36.5m). The other partners yesterday made clear that they valued Mr Ruhe's contribution to reducing the cost.

Mr Ruhe believed - wrongly, as it turned out - that if Germany withdrew from the project, Italy and Spain would follow. It is understood Mr Ruhe did not take into account the provisions of the memorandum of understanding which tied the participants into development and imposed cost penalties as long as just one continued with the project.

The 'new' aircraft - NEFA - has the same airframe and engine and is available in several variants. The RAF will probably go for the most sophisticated - the Germans for the least. At full production NEFA is expected to employ 28,000 people in Britain directly, and up to 20,000 indirectly.