Farnborough Air Show

Despite setbacks, Typhoon orders continue to mount

 - November 15, 2006, 5:53 AM

The Eurofighter Typhoon program is one of the longest running projects in the history of military aircraft. The sheer number of years from initial design studies to production deliveries to the air forces of the four original partner nations (Germany, the UK, Spain and Italy) has been fodder for criticism that the program has become a mammoth, never-ending defense project that imposed an excessive burden on taxpayers.

But Eurofighter officials counter that this argument ignores how much the program has provided the industries in those nations with a wealth of opportunities to bolster the technological capabilities of the industrial base in these countries. They also point out that in terms of numbers of aircraft contracted for production, the Typhoon is far ahead of most of its competitors.

The Spanish division of Europe’s EADS group (formally CASA) and the Spanish air force are good examples of how the partner nations have benefited from their involvement in the program. During recent press briefings, EADS CASA’s director of military aircraft programs Fernando Plaza said the Typhoon now boasts the largest number of orders for a new-generation swing-role fighter, with 630 confirmed units ordered for the four original partner nations, plus Austria.

“Six air forces are going to be Eurofighter operators,” said Plaza. “Five of these are already contracted and very soon there will be a sixth nation.”

The sixth nation he spoke of is generally assumed to be the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, which has all-but-officially signed an order and which is understood to be firmly committed to 24 aircraft and options for another 48. If the Saudis exercise these options, this will take the full program buy to more than 700 aircraft.

Even after losing out to the Boeing F-15 in two high-profile fighter export contests in Singapore and South Korea, the Eurofighter can still correctly claim to have attracted greater market support than its direct rivals. According to EADS, only 111 Dassault Rafales have been purchased or are on order for the French navy and air force, between 128 and 140 Saab JAS-39 Gripens so far will be operated by Sweden, South Africa, Hungary and the Czech Republic, and fewer than 200 Lockheed Martin F-22A Raptors are to be procured by the U.S.

Spain’s role in the Eurofighter also demonstrates that the benefits of participation in the program are not reserved solely for the major partners. Among the four initial partners, EADS CASA has the smallest work share of the program’s industrial participants (13 percent) and Spain is purchasing the fewest number of Typhoons (87). Nonetheless, the two are still involved in several critical phases of the aircraft’s test program and will end up with significant infrastructure for supporting it in service. What’s more, the Spaniards have leveraged their experience with the Eurofighter to have the single production line for the Airbus A400M military transport established at their main facility in Seville.

Eurofighter Faces Future Questions

The focus of Spain and other consortium partners is now the future of the Eurofighter–both the modernization of the design and its possible sale to other, new export customers. It is in the pace of this modernization, however, where Spain and other program partners diverge.

The first aspect, and perhaps most important from the standpoint of the industrial partners, is how the individual technologies on board the aircraft are advanced into the next-generation version of the fighter. The program has a “future capabilities plan” that includes the replacement of the existing ECR-90 radar with an active electronically scanning array model, an upgrade of the aircraft’s digital voice interface system to allow for a larger volume of voice commands by the pilot and the integration of new weapons.

The integration of these new-generation capabilities is planned for the second tranche of production. But the UK Royal Air Force is intent on having some of these capabilities dialed into the aircraft being delivered now, so it will be receiving an “austere” configuration that allows for some of these more advanced features to be provided in an early version of the aircraft. By contrast, Spain’s military officials have insisted that they are in no hurry and have kept their plan for Eurofighter procurement on a more modest and graduated scale.

Other than trying to juggle staggered procurement plans by the original four Eurofighter partners, the next major hurdle they need to clear is to persuade more nations to join the program. Some of these near-term possibilities include Greece, Norway, Switzerland and Turkey (see box).

Here again is an example of how Spain, as one of the junior partners in the program, has reaped some of the greatest benefits. The Eurofighter, according to EADS CASA, “has become an engine for creating new companies and technological capabilities” that otherwise would not have been possible.

Spain also has two other distinct advantages in the program. One is that, as an operator of the F/A-18 fighter, it is under no pressure to take the Eurofighter quickly. Unlike the other partner nations that are looking to replace much older aircraft with the Typhoon, the Spanish air force can take its time to make a phased transition.

The other is that the Moron air base is so close to the sea (about five minutes’ flight time) that it is possible for the air force to conduct a number of supersonic test flights over the water that would not be possible elsewhere in Europe. This is perhaps why Spain has received some of the more challenging assignments in the program, such as the integration of air-to-surface weaponry onto the aircraft.

Buying into the Eurofighter program, as the Spanish experience demonstrates, can reap some substantial benefits for the nations that enter into the consortium. The question for those nations offered the chance to participate is much like the choice faced in Turkey (see box): fork out a little money now to prolong an existing capability for a few years or a much larger investment that means across-the-board benefits for the entirety of a nation’s aerospace industry.