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US and Europe duel over fighter sales worth billions

Europe and the United States locked horns in a multi billion pound battle yesterday to win contracts from air forces around the world for their new fighter planes.

Four Eurofighters carried out spectacular manoeuvres in close formation at the Farnborough air show, one of the world's biggest aviation showcases, in scenes echoing Second World War dogfights. But the newly named Eurofighter Typhoons are also in a dogfight against the biggest ever warplane project, the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter being built by the US's Lockheed Martin.

What was dreamt of as Europe's state-of-the-art front-line aircraft has been dogged by delays, and is now facing fierce competition from the American-built rival, and the battle to grab the major slice of defence budgets of more than a dozen countries is now relentless.

The Eurofighter's future is also under threat from the twin missiles of political expediency and budgetary constraints.

Yesterday political and military leaders from the four nations manufacturing the Eurofighter – Britain, Germany, Italy and Spain – were in attendance at the airshow.

Geoff Hoon, the Secretary of State for Defence, praised the plane as the shape of the future. "It is an absolutely fantastic airplane. I am completely thrilled with it and I have just talked to the pilots and it keeps getting better and better," he said.

But there were persistent rumours that the Chancellor, Gordon Brown is urging a reduction on the 232 planes ordered for the Royal Air Force.

A cut back would be a major blow to the Eurofighter and its producers, including BAE Systems and its sister conglomerate, the European Aeronautic, Defence and Space Company (EADS). The British order is the biggest, followed by 180 for Germany, 121 for Italy, 87 for Spain and 24 for Austria.

It would be yet another problem for the aircraft, which was first conceived in the early Eighties and still has not gone into full production.

Waiting at the wings is Lockheed Martin with its Joint Strike Fighter. The Americans are carrying out a sustained drive in Europe to present their product as a better and most cost effective alternative to the European competitor.

A number of European countries have now got a foot in both camps. While the Ministry of Defence has pulled in a sizeable portion of the $15bn (£96bn) total budget of the Typhoon, it has also been the biggest European contributor to the JSF with $2bn.

BAE Systems, while the leading partner in the Eurofighter, is also the biggest foreign sub contractor for the JSF, securing about 15 per cent of the work, including part of the aircraft body and the onboard electronic system.

The Italians, who are making the left wings for the Eurofighter, have also decided to get on the JSF bandwagon.

Investment by Alenia Aeronautica in the US programme is said to be "substantial''. Admiral Giampaolo DePalo, Italy's National Armament Director, said: "The JSF was offering a capability with reasonable cost that an upgraded Eurofighter could not deliver.''

The JSF will be available, say the makers, for about $35m each. The Eurofighter is expected to cost about $65m. The JSF can be used for bombing as well as aboard aircraft carriers, while the Typhoon is purely a land-based fighter.

Supporters of the Eurofighter say the price of the JSF may substantially rise by the time it comes into production. They also maintain that its much-vaunted multiplicity has yet to be tested. There is also the warning that for Europe to abandon the Eurofighter at this stage would surrender the military industry to the US and be a huge waste of money.

The RAF, given the choice, would choose the Eurofighter because, they say, it is better.

However, air chiefs also accept that the British investment in the JSF is part of Tony Blair's transatlantic trapeze act and will continue.