Five European countries committed themselves to their most ambitious joint industrial cooperation project last week when they agreed to produce a common fighter aircraft for the mid-1990s.
The accord, signed in Madrid by Britain, France, Germany, Italy, and Spain, provides for the manufacture of 800 to 1,000 planes for the military forces of these NATO allies at a cost of some $15 billion. The partners also hope to sell several hundred planes to export customers.
This joint project comes after years of preliminary discussion. It also comes at a highly opportune time: Europe is struggling to stay in competition in high-technology sectors and striving for such cooperation in defense production to break the stranglehold the United States has held for decades on military output.
But the agreement opens up a new phase of competition and lobbying between rival French and British aerospace manufacturers eager to obtain the lucrative main contract.
The new plane, known as the European Fighter Aircraft, is expected to replace the current generation of F-16s, Phantoms, Jaguars, and Mirages in the air arsenals of the participating states.