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German left takes refuge in zeppelins

Forget Eurofighter, the clumsy behemoth of the skies designed for the wars of yesteryear, and still untested outside the wind tunnel. The future belongs to those cigar-shaped objects which can glide silently above enemy lines. No, not UFOs. Zeppelins.

According to a group of 47 Social Democrat MPs, who have every chance of forming the German government after next year's elections, the Eurofighter project ought to be killed off, and its ballooning costs diverted towards research into "ecological air transport systems".

The German parliament is set to debate in the autumn an order for 180 Eurofighters, a supremely expensive "multi-purpose combat jet" which is to be built together with Britain, Italy and Spain. Most opposition politicians in Germany, and some on the government benches as well, are against the project, but only now has anyone proposed an alternative.

What the MPs are suggesting is that Germany should concentrate on what needs to be protected, namely the environment, and spend the money on "clean" technology: air ships and jets running on liquid hydrogen. They argue that signing up for Eurofighter would make the German economy dangerously addicted to military technology that is already obsolete.

As for the zeppelin, last spotted burning above New Jersey in 1937, a new generation will soon be taking off. In the Friedrichshafen factory that built the ill-fated Hindenburg, a much smaller version filled with inert helium gas is due to make its maiden flight at the end of this summer. The Zeppelin NT (New Technology) will have a rigid carbon fibre structure in a polyester shell. It will travel considerably slower than the Eurofighters. The airship's swivelling engines will propel it at a sedate 80mph.

The new version will be far more manoeuvrable than its predecessor, but the engineers still do not believe it will be able to take on a Mig in a dog-fight. "It's a joke," a company spokesman commented yesterday on the MPs' initiative.

Back to the drawing board.