If this is the wrong warplane, what is the right one?: This is the moment of truth for the European Fighter Aircraft. The decision is political as well as military, says Lawrence Freedman

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IT IS a peculiarity of the British defence debate that it focuses on major weapons programmes. These carry enormous price tags and commensurately large industrial implications, which are far easier to grasp than the nuances of military doctrine or the conflict contingencies of 10 years hence.

With everything so confused after the end of the Cold War, these strategic issues have become even more perplexing. They were notably ducked in last year's Defence White Paper. It'll be interesting to see if this year's, out today, will have any more success. Even then it is doubtful whether the Ministry of Defence's most compelling prose can command anything like the attention devoted to the question of whether we should continue to invest in the European Fighter Aircraft (EFA).

There is a moment of truth in the life of every coming piece of defence equipment when the question has to be confronted: 'Is it worth it?' EFA has reached this point because the German government has answered 'no'.

This has been the signal for a campaign in Britain against EFA. If it is not worth it for Bonn, why should it be worth it for London? The claim has been made, as is common on these occasions, that EFA cannot survive as a 'military' but only as a 'political' aircraft. It is designed, so this argument goes, to provide contracts for hard-pressed companies and to maintain a profile for Britain's armed services which is now disproportionate to their economic circumstances.

This dichotomy between the political and the military is false. No programme of this size can be anything other than highly political - there is too much money involved. That does not mean that military requirements are not also being met. No serious defence analyst has argued that the RAF will not need a modern fighter.

The debate on EFA is about whether it is the best way of meeting an agreed requirement. However this is done, a large expenditure cannot be avoided. Some mooted alternatives, such as a bulk purchase of the Russian MiG-29, look cheap - but this is deceptive. There would be serious worries about spare parts and the compatibility of a Russian airframe with Western equipment. More likely alternatives would be the American F-18 or the French Rafale. In these cases, as with EFA, performance characteristics would have to be set against price - including the resources already invested in EFA.

Critics charge, often virtually at the same time, both that EFA will be obsolescent by the time it flies and that it will be far too sophisticated for contemporary needs. The German contention that this is a system designed for the Cold War years, and therefore has no place in the new world, is true only up to a point. There would be savings, which clearly the British Government is now obliged to explore, in no longer preparing for the most demanding opponent. However the arsenals of all serious military powers, well into the next century, will be full of weapons designed for an East-West confrontation that is now, thankfully, a contingency of historical interest.

There is nothing wrong with having weapons totally superior to those of any likely opposition. It makes victory easier - a reasonable strategic objective. Air power has traditionally been an area in which marginal advantages can make a substantial difference. It seems to be taking the idea of fair play to a ludicrous extreme to suggest that Western military technology must now be scaled down so that only a modest lead is maintained over any likely opponent.

What, then, about the charge that the project is 'political'? Any project costing pounds 20bn must be political. It involves jobs in high-technology industries, it influences the balance between the three armed services, it raises questions about the possibility of a European defence industry comparable to that of the United States and about the ability of Europeans to work together on common projects.

The German reassessment of EFA was also political. It reflected the popular perception that in the absence of a Soviet threat, and given the horrendous costs of integrating the former East Germany, defence expenditure is pure luxury. Furthermore, the much more limited German strategic concept leads to more limited German requirements for the aircraft. The Luftwaffe wants little beyond basic air-to-air capabilities, and not a capacity for ground attack - something the RAF could not imagine doing without. The possibility of an air refuelling capability, which again the RAF would want for longer-range Gulf-type operations, raises for the Germans the awkward question of whether they want to do anything more than defend their own borders.

Which brings us back to those fundamental questions of defence policy which are so hard to answer. If EFA is inappropriate for a post-Cold War environment, then what sort of aircraft is appropriate? Are reasonably well-equipped and professional armed forces one of Britain's most substantial contributions to regional affairs? Or are we now, in the light of our past expenditure, entitled to a disproportionately large peace dividend? It is time to read the White Paper.