US fighters are armed to meet the Gray Threat

Alert for new enemies to justify warplanes
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The Independent Online
The US Air Force is preparing to meet the "Gray Threat". Not the "Grays" - or "Greys" - of the X Files, the Mekon-like extraterrestrials with the almond-shaped eyes. No, the "Gray Threat" comes from Britain, France and Sweden. Or so says the Rand Corporation, the US think-tank that advises the Pentagon and the State Department.

The "Gray Threat" is posed by nations which produce aircraft which they may sell to people whom the Americans (the guys in white hats on white horses) may end up fighting. Not the "Black Threat" - the former Soviet Union - but the "Grays" in between: the Europeans, who will shortly be providing better ones.

The study, subtitled "Assessing the next-generation European fighters", was funded by the US Air Force and reviewed by two academics to ensure impartiality. It appears as a justification for continued development of the new US fighter, the F-22.

"With the collapse of the Soviet Union, serious questions have been raised about the continuing need for highly capable and expensive weapon systems conceived at the height of the Cold War," it says. Existing US aircraft are probably well able to cope with current and future Russian systems. But what, asks the report, if Third World countries were able to buy new European aircraft which "will have significant speed, stealth and manoeuvrability improvements over current types and are actively being marketed worldwide".

Sceptics would argue that this is an extreme manifestation of the military- industrial complex. Without a Soviet threat to justify top-of-the-range weapon systems, the US is using European aircraft - which are designed to beat Russian aircraft - to justify them instead. "The new European fighters employ a considerable amount of cutting-edge aerospace technology and are likely to be equipped with an impressive array of subsystems and advanced components," it says.

Top of the list is the Eurofighter 2000, the aircraft which is expected to perform almost as well as the top-of-the range F-22 in air-to-air combat, and which is also a bomber. Below Eurofighter, and comparable in performance with the latest Russian Su-35 air-to-air fighter, come the French Rafale and the Swedish Gripen.

But the Europeans are expected to provide better after-sales service, and that, the report says, may make them more attractive to Third-World dictators whom the US may end up fighting.

The study does not suggest that current US planes would be outclassed by Eurofighters in Third World hands. However, "US forces might be confronted with a rough parity in exchange ratios" - one US plane lost to one Eurofighter, rather than three to one, an unacceptable ratio.

But the study probably has more to do with the fiercely competitive market for international defence sales than any future war. Few examples cited are of countries which the US would expect to face in conflict; instead, they are places where Europe and the US are fighting for markets.

Chile, for example, "may be indicative of the type of environment the United States may have increasingly to cope with", the study says. Saab has already opened a sales office in Santiago, but the US is facing problems selling its F-16s there to replace Chile's ageing fleet of British Hawker Hunters.

The European strikeforce

EUROFIGHTER 2000

After a shaky start, the first Eurofighter 2000s, built by Britain, Germany, Italy and Spain, are expected to be in service by 2001. They should be available for export by 2005. Eurofighter has now flown 200 hours and performed exactly as the computers predicted it would.

Described by its chief test pilot last week as "the best handling high- performance aeroplane that any of us have ever flown", the Eurofighter is supremely agile. With a maximum speed of twice the speed of sound (1,400 mph) and 13 weapons-carrying points, it is a true multi-role aircraft: designed as a fighter which can also act as a bomber.

British Aerospace, the UK prime contractor, claims Eurofighter will win in four out of five encounters with the top-of-the range Russian fighter, the Su-35, second only to the US F-22 advanced stealth fighter, which will win in nine out of 10. More modest appraisals by the Defence Research Agency, to which the Rand Corporation lends credence, confirm the figure for F-22 but give Eurofighter three wins out of four.

But F-22 is estimated to cost twice as much, and lacks Eurofighter's ability to launch air-to-ground attacks, making the European aircraft the second- best future fighter and the best value for money in the world.

GRIPEN

Considerably smaller than the Eurofighter 2000 or Rafale, with 11 weapons stations, the Saab Gripen is a single-seat multi-role aircraft able to take off in a relatively short distance, and it has also sparked interest from Norway and Saudi Arabia.

Like the other two, it is the "canard-delta", a combination of "canards" - forward fins, and a delta wing, which gives the greatest manoeuvrability at supersonic speeds. The oldest of the three designs, it has had problems in development: two Gripens have crashed. Saab claims it has now eliminated the problems with changes in the computer software. The Gripen weighs about seven tonnes empty, compared with 10 for Eurofighter, and weighs 28,000lb fully loaded, against 46,000lb for Eurofighter.

The Defence Research Agency gives it an effectiveness index of 0.4 - below existing aircraft types such as F-16 and F-18. But Gripen is the cheapest of the three fighters, costing about $25m (pounds 16m) each, compared with $58m for the Rafale and a similar amount for the Eurofighter.

RAFALE (SQUALL)

Roughly similar to the EF-2000 in size, weight and weapons load, the Dassault Rafale is a single- seat, multi-role fighter which France will deploy from land bases and aircraft carriers.

The carrier version is lighter than the land-based aircraft, but 80 per cent of its structure is identical. Like Eurofighter, Rafale has been of interest to Norway, and could also attract countries such as the United Arab Emirates, which want to replace French Mirages. Like Eurofighter, it has a canard-delta combination. It is also described as "stealthy" - but is less so than new US designs.

Unlike the EF-2000, which uses all-composite wings, Rafale is of more conservative design, with a metal skeleton under its carbon-fibre skin. It has 14 weapons-carrying points, and is able to carry 18,000lb of ordnance.

British Aerospace rates Rafale as equal to the Su-35 in air-to-air combat. It has an "effectiveness index" of 0.55, below some existing F-15s but above others.

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