7 January 2004


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, January 9 2004

Journalists at the BBC are understandably nervous that their managers will react to expected criticism in the Hutton report by putting the dampers on critical and politically sensitive journalism. But they haven’t done so yet, as an excellent current affairs documentary on Radio Four, Eurofighter: The Plane Truth, presented by David Lomax, demonstrated this week (for audio click here).

The Eurofighter is one of the greatest unsung scandals of contemporary Britain — an aircraft designed to do something that is no longer necessary, which does not work properly and has cost billions of taxpayers’ money. Lomax’s documentary, made with only the most minimal co-operation from either BAe Systems, the main British Eurofighter contractor, or the Ministry of Defence, was a stunning expose of the whole farce.

Eurofighter made a certain amount of military sense when the plans that transmuted into the project were conceived in Britain in the late 1970s. The Cold War was at its height, and the Soviet Union had developed advanced fighters capable of outperforming anything the RAF possessed. A new fighter capable of matching these aircraft in high-altitude dog-fighting seemed a high priority. And, given the costs of developing advanced military aircraft and the perceived need not to rely wholly on the US for military procurement, it made economic and political sense to opt for a European collaborative effort to design and build it.

Even before the programme was actually started, however, the military rationale had all but disappeared. Dog-fighting fighters were effectively rendered obsolete by the development of smart air-to-air missiles in the early 1980s. But the then Conservative Government, under pressure from the RAF and, more importantly, from defence manufacturers desperate for big contracts, particularly British Aerospace, decided to go ahead; and, with Michael Heseltine as Secretary of State for Defence, the project soon evolved into a flagship for West European military-industrial co-operation between Britain and Germany, with Italy and Spain as junior partners. (France had initially been Britain’s major partner but withdrew at an early stage and built its own fighter, the Dassault Rafaele.)

Since then, as Lomax made clear, the story of the Eurofighter has been one of technical hitches, international squabbles, delays and ever-spiralling costs. The original plan was for it to enter service in 1992, but it is only now that the first few aircraft have been delivered (and they can hardly be described as operational because of technical problems). The estimated likely cost of the programme to the British taxpayer, £6 billion in the late 1980s, has risen to £20 billion.

And all this money has been spent on a piece of equipment that is of extremely limited military use. It became clear early on in the project’s life that the highly manoeuvrable dog-fighting aircraft originally envisaged was not what was required, and the plane was rejigged (at great expense) as an air-to-air missile platform. But this role itself became effectively obsolete as soon as the Cold War came to an end. Suddenly, there was no potential enemy against whom an advanced air-to-air combat aircraft might be useful.

This was an obvious point to cancel the whole project. Instead, although the Germans came close to pulling the plug, Eurofighter was rejigged again as a ground-attack aircraft — a role for which it is not really suited, which is reflected in the amazing fact that the ground-attack version might not be ready for squadron service for more than another decade.

Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the whole story — though this was barely touched upon by Lomax — is the cross-party support that this white elephant has enjoyed since the late 1980s. Labour originally opposed the project, but this stance, like nuclear disarmament, was one of the casualties of Neil Kinnock’s policy review, and by the mid-1990s Labour was an out-and-out enthusiast. David Clark, then the party’s defence spokesman, kept a model Eurofighter on his desk, and Tony Blair enthisastically endorsed the plane as “the cornerstone of the RAF’s capability as we enter the next century”.

Of course, Labour didn’t want to look soft on defence — and of course there are quite a few British jobs in the Eurofighter (its supporters claim 14,000), many of them in marginal Labour constituencies in the north-west of England.

But £20 billion, the bill for the Eurofighter, would generate substantial employment however it were spent — and there’s absolutely no reason it couldn’t have been put towards something useful: railway infrastructure, hospitals, schools, military helicopters or whatever. As it is, it’s difficult to disagree with the verdict of John Nott, the Tories’ Secretary of State for Defence in the early 1980s, who gave the scheme the initial go-ahead. “It was my biggest mistake,” he told Lomax, “a complete waste of money.”

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