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As the key air defense for half a dozen nations in Europe and the Middle East, the Eurofighter Typhoon will have to rise to multi-role occasions. (Roel Reijne)

Europe’s Typhoon Fighter

For the first time since World War II, fighters are stationed at RAF Northolt.

Remember Firefox? That was the Soviet fighter in Craig Thomas’ eponymous 1977 bestseller, made into a Clint Eastwood movie in 1982. Capable of Mach 5 and nearly invisible to radar, Firefox—in Thomas’ book, the NATO code name for a fictional MiG-31—could fly 3,000 miles and cruised comfortably at 80,000 feet and Mach 3-plus. Its weapons were controlled by the pilot’s thoughts, in Russian, and it could be shot down only by another Firefox. It was, and remains, an impossible dream machine.

But it reflected the fighter arms race ethic of its day, which echoed the Olympic motto: Faster, Higher, Stronger. In the 1970s, it was still possible to believe that the side with the fastest, highest, strongest fighter would win the war that seemed to be right around the corner.

In this atmosphere, the United Kingdom began to think about the airplane that would become the Eurofighter Typhoon. Ideally, it would be an agile, supersonic interceptor that could also hit targets on the ground. (Britain needed an interceptor because, like the U.S. Air National Guard, the Royal Air Force scrambles against intruders. In 2010, jets were scrambled twice in a week to intercept Russian Tu-95 “Bear” bombers near British airspace.) At first, the multi-role aircraft was to have the short-takeoff, vertical-landing (STOVL) characteristics of the British Aerospace Harrier, but as the sketch was more fully rendered, the STOVL capability was dropped, given instead to an improved Harrier II. The Typhoon was modified as an air superiority fighter.

As the fighter design evolved, however, the world of aerial combat was changing. With the Vietnam War over, dogfights were becoming rarer. The 1982 Falklands War, between the United Kingdom and Argentina, offered the last serious air-to-air combat in a generation. The Typhoon’s predecessor, Tornado, was sent to conflicts in the Balkans and the first Gulf War, but used only on bombing runs. As the Soviet Union collapsed, the ranks of prospective adversaries thinned. It was becoming clear to the United Kingdom and its partners—France, Germany, Italy, and Spain—that any new combat aircraft had to be multi-role. Firefox wouldn’t even make the cut.

The United Kingdom, Germany, and Italy had teamed up before, building the Tornado for their air forces. Developed by the three-nation consortium Panavia, Tornados were produced in the hundreds; they entered service in the early 1980s and have fought in every war since.

Such undertakings have the inefficiencies inherent in multi-national efforts. Countries don’t always play well together; they have different needs, and solve problems in different ways; the complicated trans-boundary supply chains can kink; and hard economic times may affect their budgets and work shares, and cause failures of nerve.

But when they function smoothly, such efforts also spread wealth, technology, and thousands of jobs among the partners, who benefit further from flying, maintaining, and training in the same aircraft as their friendly neighbors. Even with its flaws, the Panavia model became a paradigm of how to design, develop, and build combat aircraft—and, not incidentally, keep a crucial industry alive—across a more or less united Europe.

The Tornado was designed to do everything well, or at least well enough. While its real strength was ground attack, the airplane stood watch for decades as a guard against air intruders, although no one has ever called it an especially gifted fighter. It was never expected to fight well against such Soviet fighters as the Sukhoi Su-27 “Flanker” or the real MiG-31 “Foxhound” (which coincidentally entered service the same year the make-believe MiG-31 became a movie star).

As before, an international industrial consortium coalesced around what was called the European Fighter Aircraft Program. It was composed of the three Tornado partners, plus Spain and France. (France soon dropped out; preferring to build its own fighter, the Rafale.)

Headquartered in Munich, Germany, the new team was called Eurofighter Jagdflugzeug GmbH; it would design, build, and steer the evolution of the new airplane. Another consortium, Eurojet GmbH—linking Rolls-Royce (the U.K.), MTU Aero Engines (Germany), Fiat/Avio (Italy), and ITP (Spain)—was established to develop the fighter’s powerful EJ200 engines. A third consortium, EuroRADAR, would develop the radar system.

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