Heads roll as Germany tries to save face over European fighter

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The corridors of Bonn's defence ministry are resounding to the thud of falling heads as the Minister, Volker Ruhe, exacts revenge for his anticipated failure to kill off the four-nation European Fighter Aircraft project.

When he and his counterparts from Britain, Italy and Spain meet in Brussels on 11 December, it is expected that they will produce a compromise formula which, though designed to save as much of Mr Ruhe's face as possible, will leave little doubt that the programme he vowed to stop is continuing, in a cheaper, modified form.

Four of the most senior officials at the ministry connected with the fighter project have either been sacked or shifted to other posts. The two top men in charge of arms procurement, Wolfgang Burr and Joachim Heyden, have been forced into early retirement, as punishment for having impeded Mr Ruhe's efforts to halt the EFA. The dismissals followed the removal from their posts in October of two senior civil servants, Hans-Jurgen Weiss and Siegfried Hofmann. They were blamed for not having made clear to Mr Ruhe how difficult it would be for Germany to get out of the fighter's development contracts. Having trumpeted his intention to pull out of the development phase of the EFA, which Mr Ruhe declared in the summer to be 'dead', the Defence Minister has now indicated that Germany will continue with what he calls the 're-oriented' development.

Having made stopping EFA into one of his main domestic political planks, the highly ambitious Mr Ruhe is now grappling with the uncomfortable task of trying to package his limited achievements as a success. The opposition Social Democrat's defence spokesman, Walter Kolbow, accused Mr Ruhe of preparing a 'giant label swindle'. Mr Ruhe began his single-handed campaign against the German aircraft industry and his three international partners, by declaring that the EFA had been rendered superfluous by the end of the Cold War, and that Germany would have nothing further to do with it. He said he wanted to put the case for for an entirely new, cheaper aircraft.

Early assurances that Rome and Madrid backed Bonn's line proved unsubstantiated; and Mr Ruhe found himself increasingly under pressure, not just from his allies and the powerful German aircraft lobby, but from within his own Christian Democratic party. The minister's efforts did have the effect of forcing industry to revise its prices substantially downwards. The aircraft is now estimated to cost 30 per cent less, at around DM90m ( pounds 37m), achieved by throwing out some of the most sophisticated avionics and armaments.

It is this financial aspect that the German ministry is focusing on as its argument that the EFA, now dubbed New EFA, is effectively a different plane. The airframe and engines, the main issues of contention with the British, Italians and Spanish, remain more or less the same, however. The other compromise sought by Mr Ruhe is that the development phase be slowed, putting off a formal decision on producing the fighter. Preparing for Germany's pull- back position, a government official said: 'The allies should be grateful to Mr Ruhe for having got them a much cheaper plane. That alone means the exercise has been worthwhile.'