BONN — IT was hard enough keeping the German public interested in defense spending during the cold war. Now, with the war over and reunification bills mounting, it is nigh impossible.
Recognizing this, Germany's coalition parties voted Tuesday against Bonn's participation in the production of the European Fighter Aircraft as it stands now: a $40 billion project involving Germany, Britain, Italy, and Spain. (Polls show 84 percent of Germans oppose the Euro-fighter.)
The decision could prevent the fighter from ever getting off the ground, especially if Spain, as a result of Germany's decision, also pulls out. Without Germany, which has a 33 percent stake in the project, the cost to the remaining partners will increase.
Germany's decision "has been very badly received" in London, says a British diplomat in Bonn. Britain vows to go on with the project, which is nearing the end of the planning stage.
Supporters of the fighter say that killing it off would mean the loss of at least 40,000 jobs in Britain according to British estimates. Proponents also warn of a missed chance for unique European collaboration in the defense industry as well as the forfeiture of technology advances.
The crusade against the European combat plane was headed by Germany's new defense minister, Volker Ruhe, who argues the fighter is simply too expensive.
"The fighter was conceptualized at a time of East-West confrontation, but the threat has meanwhile completely changed," says Defense Ministry spokesman Walter Reichenmiller. In Mr. Ruhe's eyes, the European fighter has more capability than needed in today's new political climate, and is therefore too costly, says Mr. Reichenmiller.
The British say it is possible, through production changes, to reduce the cost of the fighter by about 10 percent. But this is not enough, apparently, to satisfy the Germans.
"Even if it [the fighter] cost less, it would still be oversized," Reichenmiller says.
Despite their decision, the Germans recognize they still need a replacement for their aging F-4 Phantoms, which they predict will become obsolete sometime shortly after the year 2000.
This is why they said the Euro-fighter should be redesigned into a lighter plane that would carry fewer weapons and cost less money. They said Germany would continue to cooperate with Britain, Spain, and Italy and suggested the project be expanded to include other countries.
But it is far from certain that the other partners will buy this idea. "The Germans can assume they are going to build a lighter aircraft, but they would be rash to assume they can build it with the UK," said the British diplomat in Bonn.
The British argue that changing planes in mid-stream would result in cost increases of 20 percent and a delivery delay of about eight years. On top of that, the aircraft would be inferior to the Euro-fighter and unable to match, for instance, the capabilities of Russian fighters - which countries such as Libya and Iraq possess.