Almost 20 years since its inception as the five-nation European Fighter Aircraft, the Eurofighter Typhoon will finally enter service with the air forces of Germany, Italy, Spain and the UK on 30 June, bringing to an end a catalogue of highly publicised delays.
Despite having been branded a white elephant and a Cold War relic by critics of the programme, the companies behind the project have already been selected for export campaigns in Austria and Greece and hope to eventually build more than 1,100 of the aircraft.
If everything goes to plan, the Typhoon should enjoy a highly successful year; in contrast to the low point of losing one of its seven development aircraft in a crash late last year. Austria is poised to sign a £1.5 billion contract for the delivery of 18 aircraft, plus weapons, in-service support and training services, and the four launch nations will also order more of the aircraft before year-end.
The countries are currently awaiting the delivery of their first 148 aircraft under a so-called Tranche 1 order but plan to buy a total of 620 aircraft over three such production runs; including 232 for the UK. The middle order is now being discussed, with an eye to finalising a contract signature late this year for the programme’s next 236 fighters. The UK’s Tranche 1 contract valued £2.5 billion for 55 aircraft, but it expects to eventually spend more than £18 billion on the project once support packages, development costs and further buys have been included.
If previously established goals for this European production are met, Germany, Italy, Spain and the UK could also take delivery of another 90 aircraft late in the project to sustain their fleets of the aircraft. The experiences of recent coalition campaigns and the emergence of new systems, such as unmanned air vehicles and strike drones could threaten this 710-aircraft total, however.
The Greek Government expects to revive its programme to buy between 60 and 90 Typhoons around 2005, having deferred a final contract decision after realising the true costs involved in hosting the Olympic Games in Athens next year.
Beyond these early customers, the Typhoon is also a candidate to meet fighter aircraft requirements in Australia, the Netherlands, Norway, Singapore and Switzerland. Saudi Arabia is also viewed as a strong potential customer by industry sources, with the Kingdom a current operator of the Tornado; the Typhoon’s predecessor as a collaborative European fighter aircraft design. BAE Systems leads marketing efforts for the design in Saudi Arabia under its current Al Yamamah arms deal with the country.
If only it was this easy to sell fighter aircraft! The Typhoon faces a number of credible rivals, including comparable large, twin-engined fighters from the US Boeing Company, which makes the F-15 Eagle and the naval F/A-18E/F Super Hornet; the US Air Force’s F/A-22 Raptor stealth fighter from Lockheed Martin; and Russia’s MiG-29 and Sukhoi Su-30 designs. Serious competition also exists in Saudi Arabia and Singapore from France’s Dassault Rafale – the aircraft which was created when Paris quit the European Fighter Aircraft programme. International contests also involve smaller, cheaper and single-engined designs, such as the Swedish/UK Gripen and Lockheed Martin’s F-16 Fighting Falcon. The latter of these is the current market leader in the fighter aircraft business, with more than 4,000 examples sold to date.
Perhaps the biggest threat to the Typhoon’s long-term prospects is the Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighter; the newest and brightest star in the piloted fighter aircraft business. Current estimates for sales of the F-35 range from less than 3,000 to 6,000 and stem from its promise as a low-cost, yet highly capable all-rounder. Led by the US military, the project has already secured development funds from the governments of Australia, Canada, Denmark, Israel, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Singapore, Turkey and the UK. The design will enter export service with the UK armed forces in 2012, when it will replace the Harrier short take-off and vertical landing aircraft.
Key drivers for countries selecting a new fighter include factors such as capability and affordabilty, but also require the transfer of the technologies and skills needed to develop and sustain their national industries. A recent military trend for massive offset packages – where a successful bidder is required to guarantee a comparable level of investment and business for local industry – shows little sign of going away, and this could benefit the Eurofighter partners. The F-35 project, for example, provides no scope for such sweeteners, which could work against the design in countries like Denmark and the Netherlands.
As with other areas of the defence industry, the consolidation and co-operation of recent years has seen several companies work together closely on a variety of projects. The UK’s BAE Systems, for example, has considerable interests in the Eurofighter Typhoon, F-35 and Gripen projects, all of which could go head-to-head in future sales campaigns. While such a stance increases the company’s prospects of benefitting from the selection of any of these platforms, it can also complicate and delay what is already a tough and expensive procurement process in buying nations.
So, with the potential to generate sales of around 1,000 aircraft over the next 15 to 20 years, why has the Typhoon come in for such repeated criticism in some areas of the UK media?
The aircraft was conceived as an air superiority fighter; a role which required it to scramble to intercept and attack Russian bomber aircraft. This mission is no longer paramount, so the aircraft’s developers have had to reinvent the design as a so-called multirole fighter, also capable of striking targets on the ground or at sea. While this might sound an easy task, it’s actually akin to Jordan finishing the design of its new Formula One car only to be told that it’s going to have to compete in the Acropolis Rally.
Europe’s new fighter is not alone in facing this challenge: the US Air Force’s F/A-22 is also having to reinvent itself, since dominance of the skies has been swiftly assured in the last two major conflicts involving the service – the Afghanistan and Iraqi campaigns. While the Typhoon is by no means cheap – each one is expected to cost £56.9 million – it is a snip against the F/A-22, which has been effectively priced out of the export market, due to its £105 million price tag.