Britain Asks Allies to Join It In Producing a 'Eurofighter'

A deal would end dependence on US suppliers

Britain is urging three of its European allies to approve joint mass-production of a high-tech combat jet for the 21st century that will end dependence on the United States for advanced fighter aircraft.

The London government says it has the ready cash to buy 232 "Eurofighters," if they are built. Yet Britain is having to pressure Germany, Italy, and Spain to commit themselves to join in the 40 billion ($62 billion) project.

Britain's Defense Secretary Michael Portillo said on Sept. 2 that his government was ready to press ahead with the venture. But he did so against a backdrop of locally expressed doubts that the single-seat, twin-engine plane is the machine needed to replace the US-made Tornado F3 jets now flying in the Royal Air Force.

He countered suggestions that the Eurofighter should not be mass-produced by the four partner nations by pointing to the successful flight of a prototype at the annual Farnborough, England, air show early this month.

The Eurofighter project has been dogged by controversy ever since the program was launched in 1985. Making sure that a prototype was built required five years of negotiation between London, Bonn, Rome, and Madrid.

Cost-estimate increases have nearly doubled the probable price tag of the project. Criticisms of the advanced technology built into the machine have helped fuel the debate.

Moreover, Germany is trying to cut state spending to reduce its federal deficit. Mr. Portillo says he is "nudging" the Germans to approve a substantial Eurofighter investment so that the plane can enter service in the year 2002.

Keeping industry alive

The Eurofighter represents "a crucial step forward" in providing the European allies with a multi-role aircraft for the next century, Portillo says. "The four-nation program will ensure that the European aerospace industry remains at the forefront of technology."

Deputy Prime Minister Michael Heseltine has declared the Eurofighter to be "the best aircraft to meet the needs of the post-cold-war environment."

Defense expert Peter Almond says the Eurofighter is "one of the most sophisticated, agile and capable combat aircraft in the world."

The plane is deliberately designed to be unstable. Computers in its flight surfaces enable the pilot to control it at twice the speed of sound and make turns three times tighter than a Tornado F-3.

A new firing system enables the pilot to focus a target through sights mounted in his helmet and launch a guided air-to-air missile. If Portillo gets his way, Germany will build 180 Eurofighters, Italy 121, and Spain 87.

France has shunned the Eurofighter program entirely, preferring to develop and build its own Rafael combat aircraft.

Initial verdicts on the Eurofighter have been glowing. After test-flying the prototype, John Turner of British Aerospace, said: "I have no hesitation in proclaiming the aircraft's cockpit the best in the world for single-seat air defense and air-to-surface operations."

One reason Britain is keen to press ahead with the Eurofighter and spend 15 billion on it is the employment the project will provide; Portillo forecasts 14,000 jobs in Britain alone.

Fighter lacks stealth

Unlike the latest US combat jets, the Eurofighter lacks "stealth" capability to make it virtually invisible to enemy radar. An aircraft expert quoted in London's Financial Times said the Eurofighter was "about as stealthy as a Boeing 747."

Each American-made F22 would likely be twice the price of a Eurofighter, Ministry of Defense experts say. But the US plans a cheap new "joint strike fighter tobe in service by 2010.

As the debate between London and its partners proceeds in the next few months, a key factor is likely to be the Eurofighter's export potential beyond Europe. Portillo's advisers say Asian countries will soon be in the market.

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