Arrivano gli Eurofighter

Fonte: The Guardian,11816,1003333,00.html

But the Russians aren't coming
It has cost £50 billion, has been 30 years in the making and is designed to fight an enemy that no longer exists. So is the Eurofighter a military white elephant? Andy Beckett investigates

Andy Beckett
Tuesday July 22, 2003
The Guardian

At the Royal International Air Tattoo on Saturday, there was a Eurofighter on display next to the runway of RAF Fairford in Gloucestershire. And next to the smooth, dark grey warplane, there was a young Eurofighter pilot called Gavin.

As people queued for a guided tour of the aircraft, in greater numbers than for any of the other exhibits, Gavin's job was to politely keep them in line and answer questions. At first glance, it looked quite a pleasant task: the sun was shining, the Eurofighter was gleaming, and the people queueing, who wore T-shirts with missiles on them and held carrier bags advertising the Daily Mail, did not seem likely opponents of the military-industrial complex.

Yet when they considered the Eurofighter they acquired a certain scepticism.

"Is it quick enough?" asked a man with a moustache and three grandchildren, typically, as he reached the head of the queue.

"It does Mach 2," said Gavin, patiently.

"Anything does Mach 2," said the man, loudly.

Gavin, who was wearing sunglasses, remained expressionless, but began to rock back and forth on his heels. The man continued: "The F-16 [an elderly American fighter] does Mach 2."

The sun, reflected off the runway, began to feel prickly rather than invigorating. Gavin reddened. Then he changed the subject to what "a fantastic aircraft" the Eurofighter was to fly. But the man seemed to have stopped listening.

This month, after more than a quarter of a century of development, and a decade later than planned, the RAF is finally receiving its first consignment of Eurofighters. "There is already a considerable buzz around frontline squadrons," the head of the RAF, Air Chief Marshal Sir Peter Squire, crisply told the press three weeks ago. Jointly produced by Britain, Germany, Spain and Italy, the Eurofighter is the most expensive European defence project ever, with a big enough budget - more than £50bn for an anticipated 600 aircraft - to dig five Channel Tunnels.

Since the aircraft was conceived, it has survived countless technical and financial crises, design revisions and rescue packages, changes of government and shifts in strategic priorities. The resulting warplane, with its thick, slightly stubby fuselage and sharply swept-back wings, is "one of the most advanced fighter aircraft in the world", according to Stewart Penney, defence editor of the trade magazine Flight International.

But a feeling of unease lingers around the project. Partly this is down to the Eurofighter's problematic history; partly it is down to something more fundamental. As Penney admits: "The last time a UK pilot shot down an enemy aircraft was in 1982 in the Falklands." Since then, Britain's frequent wars have been fought against opponents either without air forces or without much chance to use them. Yet the Eurofighter was devised in a very different era: when massed formations of Russian aircraft were anticipated by western military planners as an accompaniment to an invasion of Europe.

With this threat, real or otherwise, having long receded, the Eurofighter's original role, using its manoeuvrability and clever weapons systems to perform Battle of Britain-style heroics, has been replaced by something more ambiguous. For critics of the international defence business and its political and military allies, the jet has become the perfect example of a well-connected industry's ability to make over-budget, redundant products and find a market for them regardless. "The Eurofighter is completely out of date," says Susan Willett, a defence analyst and "long-term sceptic" about the jet. "It's a cold-war beast."

For those suspicious of European collaborations in general, the fighter - paid for and built according to a complex and frequently disputed formula, which currently gives Britain the largest share, roughly a third, of the expenditure and the work - has become bloated with predictable compromises. Production contracts have been distributed according to political imperatives rather than ability of those chosen to fulfil them. Different wings of the same aircraft have been manufactured in different countries. The Eurofighter has become, literally, a warplane designed by committee.

But to supporters of the Eurofighter, all these complaints are either irrelevant or incorrect. "The aircraft is absolutely critical to the UK aerospace industry," says John Wall, the national aerospace secretary of the trade union Amicus. Estimates of the number of British jobs dependent on the project range from 10,000 to 80,000.

"These are worthwhile jobs," Penney adds. "Engineers, technicians, skilled artisans... often in places where there aren't many other jobs." Without this local expertise, he continues, Britain would have to buy fighters from America or even Russia, at probably greater cost.

In the beginning, it is generally forgotten now, the Eurofighter was meant to be practical and cheap. Since the end of the second world war, it had gradually, painfully become clear that creating a complex military aircraft was often too much for a medium-sized country. In Britain, a slender, futuristic fighter-bomber with a mixed performance record called the TSR2 was cancelled amid much national angst in 1965.

During the early 70s, that time of dawning financial realities for Britain and other European countries, a European Combat Aircraft, as the Eurofighter was initially known, was envisaged. By the following decade, Britain, France, Germany, Spain and Italy were working together. The need for the aircraft seemed obvious: in public at least, there seemed no end in sight to the cold war, and there were anxieties about a new generation of startlingly nimble Russian fighters. In October 1985, British Aerospace (now BAE Systems), the main British contractor, wheeled out a prototype Eurofighter at its long-established aircraft factory in Warton, Lancashire, to show the press. The aircraft looked sleek and modern and convincing. It was anticipated that it would enter service by the mid-90s at the latest.

But problems had already begun to surface. By 1985, France had decided that it wanted a jet primarily for attacking targets on the ground rather than other aircraft. The other countries wanted the opposite. That summer, France pulled out of the project and began developing its own rival plane, the Rafale.

In Britain, by the late 80s, there were political doubts "about the wisdom of so large a [Eurofighter] programme", the defence minister Alan Clark recorded in his diaries. "I am inclined... to maintain design and research teams. But defer going into production for as long as one can. The moment something goes into production it is obsolescent and all the in-service problems start crowding in."

Before this could happen, the Berlin Wall fell. In Germany in particular, deterring the Russians abruptly became less of a priority. By 1992, the cost of reunification had made German withdrawal from the European Fighter Aircraft scheme, as it was now called, an apparent certainty. "The European Fighter Aircraft is as good as dead," concluded Alastair Campbell, then the Daily Mirror's political editor.

However, he and other commentators had underestimated the political leverage of the defence industry. In newspapers across the political spectrum, sympathetic stories began to appear about the plight of aerospace workers if the Eurofighter was cancelled. There was a demonstration in London, with even the Socialist Workers Party providing placards ("No Closures. No Job Losses. Stuff The Tories.") In Britain, the German defence minister, who had suggested that "the plane has to adjust to the security situation and not the other way round", was portrayed as a dangerous heretic.

In the end, Germany stayed faithful to the project. A recession was chilling Europe's economies, and Germany needed workable relations with Britain to further its hopes for European integration. Yet the Eurofighter scheme continued to be a struggle. Sharing the work between four countries increased, rather than reduced, costs. Satisfying four separate air forces demanded compromises - the jet got heavier - and the production of four different versions of the same aircraft. Even the name became a problem: in 1998 a British plan to change it yet again to the Typhoon reportedly caused friction with the Germans, who vividly remembered an RAF ground-attack aircraft of the same name incinerating German tank crews during the second world war.

At air shows during the 90s, the Eurofighter became notorious for its non-appearances and technical glitches. Last November, just as it finally seemed about to enter service, a prototype crashed in Spain after its engines stopped. At the vast, humming BAE Systems compound in Warton, workers developed ever more tactful ways of summarising the delays to inquiring journalists. As Andy Wishart, a senior engineer and Eurofighter veteran, put it last week: "The waters have never been smooth, shall we say." Almost in passing, he mentions that there are still "minor technical problems".

Yet what strikes the visitor to Warton most is not frustration but confidence. The factory looms over its surrounding village, disproportionately large, like questions of defence policy in the minds of most British politicians. BAE workers stroll round the village with their name tags proudly showing. In the nearest pub to the factory, the woman behind the bar says, "There's a saying round here. British Aerospace will always be there."

As Professor Malcolm Chalmers, a defence economist at Bradford University, points out, "The average voter has much less connection with what works or not in defence than in schools or hospitals." At the same time, British military projects can draw on centuries of national pride about British prowess and ingenuity with weapons. At Saturday's air tattoo, a Eurofighter was self-consciously scheduled to appear in the flying display immediately after a Spitfire.

When its time came, the Eurofighter roared on a distant runway, shot briefly forward, and took off at an improbable angle, climbing almost vertically towards the gathering clouds. Then it slowed, and began to swing back and forth across the sky with a strange, asymmetrical twisting motion, like a dead leaf spinning on a gust of wind, except perfectly under control. For a few minutes, it became more possible to understand what had driven the Eurofighter advocates on.

But at the railway station afterwards, there was a reminder that time might finally be running out for them. The stationmaster had struck up a conversation with a family who had been at the tattoo. There was one thing he wanted to know. Had they seen the American stealth fighter?

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