Relief at last week's decision to develop a three-country European fighter plane for the 1990s is rampant in London. It is more discreet in Bonn and Rome. For both financial and political reasons all three participants would have preferred a five-nation aircraft, with France and Spain inside rather than outside the consortium. But after the French held out in two years of negotiations for a lighter plane the British and West Germans in particular were just glad to get their heavier plane without compromising their specifications into a far less useful machine.
Whether the 3 a.m. decision in Turin on Aug. 2 by the British, West German, and Italian armaments directors has advanced or set back the cause of European collaboration in procurement is a matter of some dispute.
In the past year or two Europeans have been stressing the need to make their weapons industries competitive with their American counterparts to strengthen the ``European pillar'' of NATO and begin to offset the 6- or 7-to-1 ratio of American arms sales to Europe. Clashes of national interest keep sinking projects, and some of those involved consider it a victory that this one has survived at all.
But it certainly would do more for European cooperation to have France and Spain in. There are hopes that Madrid might join the project, since the Spanish Air Force prefers the tripartite air-superiority plane over the lighter Rafale that France is currently unveiling for ground attack.
In West Germany the Air Force is far happier about the outcome than the government is. The Air Force gave priority to getting a heavier, more versatile aircraft. The Bonn government sees the growing French-German cooperation in defense as a major foreign-policy success, and officials tried valiantly to broker a French-British compromise before the five-nation Fighter-90 talks finally failed.
As now planned, the joint project will cost $14 billion and produce 600 to 800 planes for the three participating countries. Each plane will weigh 9.75 tons and have a wing surface of 50 square meters. This will enable the aircraft to attack ground targets and to conduct dogfights in the air above battle lines.
In the negotiations France refused to go above 9.5 tons, since it already has a tactical air fighter in the Mirage 2000 -- and since it wanted to help cut unit costs by exporting several hundred of the lighter aircraft for a ground-support role abroad. In the talks Paris insisted that it retain design leadership and provide the SNECMA M88 engine for the joint plane, as well as hold the largest single share in the project. (It wanted up to 46 percent.)
The three current participants are comfortable working together, since they have collaborated in building the heavier long-range, multirole Tornado combat aircraft that came on line in the early 1980s. Despite controversial cost overruns the Tornado is considered a success.
Two joint companies will be set up for the new project, under the management either of the Tornado's Panavia or a new company. Britain and West Germany will take 38 percent each, with British Aerospace and Messerschmitt-B"olkow-Blohm as the industrial leaders. Italy will take 24 percent, with Aeritalia in the lead. Purchase of US planes would be cheaper but would not enable the European aerospace industries to catch up with the US.