Typhoon partners debate multiroles

 - December 14, 2006, 8:40 AM

Progress in the Eurofighter Typhoon program remains slow, although steady. In recent months, single-seat production aircraft with added functionality have been delivered to all four partner air forces. Air-to-air missile firings against targets representing sophisticated threats have taken place. Flight tests of the latest flight control system software are under way.

The new management team finally secured the all-important Tranche 2 contract last December, to the relief of the many subcontractors and thousands of aerospace workers across Europe. The deal for another 236 aircraft and 519 engines is worth $21 billion. But the fine details of exactly what weapons and functionalities are to be included in the T2 has still not been agreed to among the four sponsor nations, despite tortuous negotiations. “We continue working toward a satisfactory conclusion. In some cases, development work has been under way for some time,” a Eurofighter spokesman told Aviation International News last month.

This failure to confirm exactly what capability will be added to the aircraft, and when, was probably the reason why Singapore eliminated the Typhoon from its Next Fighter Replacement Project in mid-April. In a terse statement, the Singapore Ministry of Defence noted that “the committed schedule for the delivery of Typhoon and its systems did not meet the RSAF requirement.” The island nation will now choose between the Dassault Rafale and the Boeing F-15E (both of which are flying here at Le Bourget this week).

The fact is, Eurofighter has a long way to go before it can prove that the Typhoon is truly a multirole aircraft. The GBU-10 and Paveway II laser-guided bombs (LGBs) are now flying on development and instrumented production aircraft. But no air-to-ground weapons have yet been released. The Typhoon has the furthest-aft center of gravity of any combat jet, which confers superior performance in supersonic air-to-air engagements. But this makes the jet highly unstable at subsonic speeds, and so the consortium is having to explore carefully the handling and control laws for this regime. “We have a sound fundamental design, with improving maturity…[but] full avionic integration remains a challenge,” Eurofighter marketing director Brian Phillipson told journalists last October.  

At the insistence of the UK Royal Air Force, an interim air-to-ground capability will be delivered with the last batch of Tranche 1 airplanes (20 aircraft designated Block 5). In RAF service, they will carry the Litening III pod to provide an interim organic targeting capability for LGBs.

These last aircraft in T1 are already in production, and due for delivery in 2007. T1 comprises 148 airplanes, of which the first 30 (Block 1) were all two-seaters with limited functionality. The Block 2 aircraft now being delivered are fitted with the initial operational versions of the defensive aids subsystem (DASS), multifunction information and distribution system (MIDS) and direct voice input (DVI). They provide enhanced air defense capability, according to Eurofighter, but the Block 5 aircraft will add full DASS and infrared search and track (IRST), as well as providing initial sensor fusion.

Although the NETMA procurement agency acting for the four partner nations approved the original Tranche 2 contract, the UK government withheld signature while it sought a greater commitment to multirole capability, and better pricing. According to UK government statistics, the average unit production cost of a RAF Typhoon is around $88 million.

One key feature of the T2 airplanes will be new, larger-capacity mission computers. T2 deliveries will start in late 2007 with the Block 8 standard, with an enhanced DASS, and more sensor fusion. Further enhancements will include 8.33 kHz radios, IFF Mode 5 and “future GPS.” As for weapons, the provisional list includes AIM-120C5, Meteor and IRIS-T for air-to-air, plus for air-to-ground the JDAM (GBU-32); UK Paveway III; GBU-24; BPG-2000; Brimstone; Taurus and Storm Shadow.  

Eurofighter originally allocated some of these weapons (notably the Meteor, Taurus and Storm Shadow) to Tranche 3, the final batch of 236 more airplanes that was envisioned when the original production investment (PI) contract was signed in 1988. There is now some doubt whether the UK will ever sign up to T3, although Germany is fully committed. Eurofighter believes that it already has all four partners locked into T3, by virtue of the PI contract. This specified the production-sharing ratios according to the number of aircraft ordered by each nation. At that time, the UK wanted a total of 232 aircraft, versus 180 for Germany, 121 for Italy and 81 for Spain.

Still, T3 or not, Eurofighter is easily the largest combat aircraft program outside the U.S. In theory, this provides an excellent platform to push for export sales. To date, however, only Austria has signed up, and it will receive 18 aircraft starting in 2007 thanks to deferral of some T2 deliveries to the UK. Norway and Greece are considered near-term prospects, but the latter has pulled back from committing to the four-nation jet, and will hold a proper competition some time in the future.

Eurofighter is also targeting Belgium, Denmark, the Netherlands, Portugal, Switzerland and Turkey. Some of these countries have expressed interest in the Joint Strike Fighter, but a Eurofighter official claimed that “reducing domestic and international JSF production numbers, and dissatisfaction with industrial aspects, are progressively weakening the JSF position.”