EU set to challenge America over fighters

It isn’t merely in the airliner business that Europe’s aerospace industry is looking to assert itself over the Americans

The recent launch of the A380 Superjumbo confirmed the determination of Airbus to battle Boeing on all sectors of the fiercely competitive commercial aircraft market.

Yet the truth is, it isn’t merely in the airliner business that Europe’s aerospace industry is looking to assert itself over the Americans.

A few weeks ago, the government management agency behind the Eurofighter combat aircraft sent a formal invitation to the Dutch to join the Eurofighter Typhoon project. If they agree, the Dutch will not only buy the Typhoon to replace their Lockheed Martin F-16s, but also participate in its construction and on-going development as a full partner with the UK, Germany, Italy, Spain and Greece.

The terms are generous, but they have to be. Later this year, the Dutch parliament is set to decide whether to commit to the US-led Joint Strike Fighter programme. If it can pitch its offer right, Eurofighter figures it might be able to see off JSF before it gains a foothold in the Typhoon’s backyard.

In January, the UK pledged almost $2bn to the next phase of JSF, but the country’s need for the aircraft is specialised. JSF, in its vertical take-off and landing guise, can replace Royal Navy and RAF Harriers. But the backbone of the UK’s air defence and airborne strike capabilities will be provided by the Typhoon, which enters service with the air force next year.

Eurofighter is offering Dutch firms like Philips and Signaal a major design and development role in the so-called ‘Tranche 3’ version of the fighter. The main Tranche 3 features are extra flying range, better air-to-air weapons, an improved electronic warfare capability and a radically upgraded radar. The aircraft’s software-based avionics would be ‘tweaked’ to conform to Royal Netherlands Air Force requirements.

Eurofighter is asking the Dutch parliament to divert the $1bn it set aside for JSF to the Typhoon instead. ‘We’re saying that even if the Netherlands doesn’t buy the aircraft, there’s every chance we’ll give them work on Tranche 3 and beyond because we need their resources and we’d rather buy [parts] from Europe than the US,’ a Eurofighter executive said. The company has instituted a similar policy in Norway prior to Oslo’s fighter choice later this year. Having dominated the fighter market for decades with the F-16, the US combat aircraft industry is rattled. The Bush administration has not yet committed to JSF and it is still wavering over the expensive, super-sophisticated Lockheed Martin F-22.

Europe, meanwhile, has committed to more than 700 Typhoons, placing its fighter manufacturers in the driving seat in the export market. It must be a strange feeling. The last time the Brits were embued with it was when the Hawker Hunter was king back in the 1950s.