Europe’s Typhoon Fighter

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

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. Here, RAF Typhoons from 3, 11, 17, and 29 Squadrons from RAF Coningsby in echelon formation. (Copyright Eurofighter—Geoffrey Lee, Planefocus Ltd. GHL-082717)
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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.

Of course, some Eurofighter partners were more equal than others, depending on the size of their orders. BAE Systems (formerly British Aerospace) and Cassidian Germany (now part of EADS, the European Aeronautic Defense and Space Company) each own 33 percent of Eurofighter. Italy’s Alenia Aeromacchi owns 21, and Cassidian Spain, 13.

The prototype was towed out of the assembly hall at Warton Aerodrome, near Preston in the English northwest, in October 1985. After a year of tweaking, it finally flew, and BAE test pilot David Eagles took the airplane supersonic. Painted white with black trim, the prototype gave its first public performance at the 1986 Farnborough Air Show, where the French also demonstrated Dassault’s new fighter, Rafale.

At Farnborough a decade later, the British government, having built and tested a small fleet of prototypes, committed to full production of the Eurofighter, bringing along Germany, Italy, and Spain. There would be three contracts, or tranches, coordinated through the NATO Eurofighter Tornado Management Agency (NETMA). The first Eurofighters would begin as interceptors, but over time mature into multi-role combat jets, flown by the air forces of the four partners—and, their principals hoped, of other countries as well.

Now the vast Eurofighter supply chain rumbled into motion. Around the clock, transports began depositing canards and a fuselage section from somewhere, and picking up a wing or cockpit section or engine to drop somewhere else. It was a constant shuffle of components that, in immaculately clean, brightly lit, and tidy final-assembly halls in Britain, Germany, Italy, and Spain, turned into airplanes.

Two years later, in 1998, Britain’s secretary of state for defense floated the idea of giving the new fighter, then called Eurofighter 2000, a name with a bit more sparkle: Typhoon. It evoked the square-jawed British fighter-bomber of World War II—a brother of the Hawker Hurricane and, to a German ear, a former enemy aircraft. It took four more years, but the partners finally agreed, and what they believed was the warplane of the new century became the Eurofighter Typhoon. It started out fighting side by side with the Tornado, but gradually took over some of the older airplane’s duties. By the end of the first decade, the RAF had five Typhoon squadrons operating at bases in Coningsby and Leuchars.

In early 2011, inspired by successful uprisings in neighboring Tunisia and Egypt, rebels in Libya began to challenge the regime of Colonel Muammar Qaddafi, and the regime fought back. Alarmed by the prospect of a civilian slaughter and refugees streaming into Italy, the United Nations Security Council issued resolutions in March urging the protection of Libya’s citizens by any means possible, except troops on the ground. Under a U.S.-coordinated no-fly zone over Libya, strikes by U.S., British, and French warplanes and ship-launched cruise missiles began to erase Libya’s fixed air defenses. In late March, the coalition was put under NATO command, and an air force from 11 NATO member countries and three non-members (Qatar, Sweden, and the United Arab Emirates) began an aerial campaign to reduce Libya’s military to rubble.

The British effort was called Operation Ellamy (a meaningless term from a code-name-generating computer program). For the Typhoon and its crews, it was an unexpected, but welcome, call to arms. Now the Typhoon would show the world what it could do.

At its peak, Ellamy put 32 British aircraft into the conflict, including six Typhoons led by Wing Commander Jez Attridge, a big, fit 42-year-old now serving as capability manager for the RAF Typhoon fleet. We talked last October, on Ellamy’s final day, at the Ministry of Defence in Whitehall.

Attridge had flown Tornados out of the RAF’s Leuchars air base in Fife, and, assigned to the U.S. Marines for three years, became carrier-qualified in the F/A-18, which he described as “a great stepping stone to the Typhoon.” When the RAF attacked Libya, Attridge was commanding the Typhoon squadron that struck.

That an air superiority fighter could be flown off to a war where it would do mainly ground attack was a testament to its versatility. “We took the airplane to that theater without any changes whatever,” said Attridge, adding that, in the field, the crew made some software changes to reprogram cockpit displays. Once it became clear that there would not be much airborne prey over Libya, the Typhoon’s evolution into a multi-role aircraft was accelerated. “It went to multi-role in a weekend,” Attridge said.

The Typhoon shared missions with the Tornado, which, in the early days of the operation, commuted from the U.K. to strike Libyan targets. (The squadron later moved to Italy.) Tornados usually carried 500-pound Paveway IV guided bombs; the aptly named Brimstone, which can decapitate an armored column; and the longer-range Storm Shadow missile, capable of taking out anti-aircraft and command-and-control bunkers more than 100 miles away. Typhoons carried air-to-air missiles in case Libyan jets challenged them, and, although new to ground-attack, lugged the heavier ordnance. “We started off with two 1,000-pound smart bombs,” Attridge said, “then four, moving to six.”

Tornados attacked small and moving targets that required maximum precision, while Typhoons applied their Enhanced Paveways to larger targets, like the regime’s sprawling compounds. “We’d take off, an hour to refueling, then to Libya,” said Attridge. “Six, seven, as much as nine hours,” while Typhoon ground support and maintenance crews were working double that. “Tornado-Typhoon combinations, 24 hours a day,” he said. “We didn’t stop for six months.”

The RAF has an unconventional option: to pair different aircraft types until the Tornados finally retire, toward the end of this decade. By then, the Typhoon will have fully matured as a ground attack platform, with its own laser and infrared targeting systems (in Libya it had relied part of the time on the Tornado’s), as well as Brimstone, Storm Shadow, and Meteor, a beyond-visual-range air-to-air missile still in development. “One Typhoon doing the same job as two aircraft, an air defense and an air-to-surface Tornado,” said Attridge. “It’s the most capable aircraft we’ve ever had.”

Although the Typhoon has flown air-defense duty for years, it may be best known for its star turn on the BBC’s popular “Top Gear” program. In October 2007, the show pitted a Typhoon against a Bugatti Veyron—a £60 million (about $94 million) airplane against a £1 million ($1.6 million) automobile—in a two-mile race, horizontal for the car, vertical for the Typhoon. The aerial footage of the Typhoon’s vertical climb, its balletic reverse a mile above the ground, and the dive back toward the runway at RAF Coningsby (to win by about two seconds) was a study in easy grace. (You can watch video of the race on YouTube: Search Bugatti Veyron vs. Eurofighter.)

“Easy” is a term you hear a lot from Typhoon pilots. Attridge said, partly in jest, that the airplane “was disappointingly easy to fly...once you get over that awe from the fact that you’re flying such an expensive machine, cruising along at 40,000 feet at the speed of sound.”

At Warton Aerodrome, Mark Bowman, BAE’s chief test pilot on the Typhoon, said, “Flying the Typhoon is easier than flying a Cessna 150.” We talked in the flight operations office at Warton while outside, Typhoons rehearsed for an airshow in Malaysia.

Bowman served three tours in the AV8 Harrier in the late 1980s and ’90s, and was the chief Harrier test pilot for the RAF. It is said that a pilot’s favorite airplane is the one he or she is currently flying, but Bowman spoke more highly of the Harrier, which he liked for its versatility, than of the Typhoon. If he has a sentimental favorite, it may be the old Hawker Hunter. Still, “if you’re looking at performance and potential,” he began, then paused and gave what is known as the Typhoon Grin.

The other quality Typhoon pilots talk about a lot is “carefree handling.” Almost every airplane will, at some combination of angle of attack, speed, and trim, stall—depart, as they say. But, so far at least, the Typhoon’s departure, if there is one, remains its secret. “Nothing you can do to depart it,” said Attridge. “The Typhoon is very precise, not a jerky airplane, not like you’re flying along on the edge of a knife. The engine response is as precise as on Hornets, which you need for carrier operations. You feel attached to it.”

“At low speed,” Bowman explained, any recovery moves are “all done automatically. The aircraft gives an audio warning to the pilot. If the pilot chooses to do nothing, the aircraft will take control, perform a recovery maneuver, throttle up to military power…finish the recovery, and give itself back to the pilot.” At the high-speed end, the airplane cues the pilot when it begins to touch the corners of its large performance envelope. But departures, said Bowman, “are not something we’d expect to encounter.”

Flying the Tornado in mock combat exercises, Attridge said, he was often “glad when it was over.” No longer. He has flown the Typhoon in exercises against the Mirage 2000, F-15, Su-30 Mk.2, and F-16, none of which “caused any problem for the jet in a visual fight.” One civilian observer at Warton, familiar with the Typhoon’s capabilities, was less kind. Beating F-16s in a Typhoon, he told me, was about as challenging as “clubbing seals.” The Typhoon also reportedly was able to get a radar lock on the Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor—the top U.S. fighter—in a 2006 exercise at Naval Air Station China Lake, according to International Air Power Review magazine.

I asked Attridge which airplane he would least like to fight in a Typhoon. His response: “Who would want to fight a Typhoon?”

The Typhoon has its share of critics in the aviation press who scorn the aircraft as a pricey cold war relic, decades old and decades late. Why, they ask, are we paying all this money for a fighter that’s less than “fifth-generation,” a term that the public now always associates with new combat aircraft. The F-22 and Lockheed Martin’s F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, and new types under development by Russia and China, are considered fifth-generation aircraft, mainly because of their stealthy designs, suite of defensive and offensive weapons, and networked information systems. Fourth-generation fighters comprise the American “teens”—F-14, F-15, F-16, F/A-18, and some Russian types. (Some wags say the F-16 should be considered fifth-generation because five generations of pilots have flown it.)

Because airplanes lugging their weight in underwing fuel tanks, sensor pods, and weapons cannot be made fully stealthy, they have little chance of rising to fifth-generation status, even if they excel in everything else. Thus, the Typhoon has been assigned to a generation somewhere between fourth and fifth—4.5, say—as have the Rafale and the Swedish Gripen.

This ranking has fueled a good deal of criticism in the blogosphere, where observers talk about the “1986 fiasco” that produced the three generation-4.5 fighters which now compete with one another, sapping the vitality from Europe’s aircraft industry.

But in the complaints, one also detects a kind of snarky glee. A story in Britain’s Register newspaper claiming that Pakistani pilots in Turkish F-16s beat Typhoons in the 2009 Anatolian Eagle exercise bore the headline “RAF Eurofighter Typhoons ‘beaten’ by Pakistani F-16s three-nil apparently. Brit flyboys ‘shocked’.” (Attridge, who flew in Anatolian Eagle, said the victory didn’t happen, and the exercise’s Web site,, doesn’t say.)

Some critics have dismissed the Typhoon’s Libyan performance, which seems to have been nearly flawless, as evidence of a crippling dependency upon the Tornado. (The Typhoon had “buddied up” with the Tornado for the first two weeks of the Libyan campaign to take advantage of the Tornado crews’ Afghanistan experience. After that, the Typhoon used its own targeting sensor, the Litening III, on aerial strikes.) And there is a good deal of carping about the airplane’s Captor radar, which scans mechanically; it is a bit slower than an active electronically scanned array (AESA), like that on the F/A-18 Super Hornet and is now being developed for the Typhoon.

Attridge thinks Typhoons are just misunderstood. “It doesn’t matter that they were conceived 15 years ago,” he said. “The architecture in the airplane was enough…. We can build on the platform to 2030 and beyond.”

Besides the Rafale and the Gripen, the Typhoon competes with the Boeing F/A-18 Super Hornet. Like evenly matched rivals, these aircraft vie for survival in a global marketplace where they may become a grand success or, sometimes, a heartbreaking failure.

In a sense, the warplane-vending business is haunted by the cautionary tale of the F-22 Raptor. Widely regarded as the world’s best air superiority fighter and once of interest to several foreign air forces, the stealthy Raptor, despite long development delays and astronomical costs, was intended to be another F-4 or F-16, churned out by the thousands. But since its delivery to the U.S. Air Force in 2003, the Raptor, too advanced and too expensive to put at risk, and with nothing much to contribute in an era of regional warfare, sat out the conflicts the United States has been engaged in. Meanwhile, Congress applied the coup de grace, forbidding the Raptor’s exportation, even to allies. The ban effectively killed the infant in its crib. Only 195 F-22s were built (187 of them operational) before production ended last year.

“We are more relaxed,” explains Peter Anstiss, BAE’s business development director, speaking in his large, airy office at Warton Aerodrome. “The countries to which we can sell are heavily regulated by the U.K. and partner nations. I don’t think, for example, that we have access to any countries that Boeing wouldn’t have with the F-18. But we are much more likely to work with international partners on technology.”

Initially, it looked as if the Typhoon might sweep the global field. In 2002, Austria, which had been flying 50-year-old Saab Drakens, placed an order for 24, later reduced to 18. Saudi Arabia decided to replace its Tornado fleet with 72 Typhoons. Greece asked for 60 to 80 Typhoons, but later dropped out for financial reasons. In early November, India opened bids from Eurofighter and Dassault to supply 160 multi-role aircraft, with an option on 60 more. (At the end of January 2012, India revealed that it would buy 126 Rafales.) Switzerland, where the Typhoon seemed a strong candidate to replace the Northrop F-5 fleet, opted instead for the Swedish Gripen.

A fourth competitor has just arrived on the scene, complicating the relationships among the members of generation 4.5. Late in the decade, the Joint Strike Fighter, Lockheed Martin’s F-35 Lightning II, will become operational. Britain is one of eight partner nations now involved with the airplane, and BAE Systems is the JSF program’s principal sub-contractor. (Italy is the only other Eurofighter nation in the F-35 mix.)

For some countries, opting for the F-35 has precluded buys of the Typhoon or its competitors. Japan, for example, has stopped considering the Typhoon and has signaled it will join the JSF partnership. South Korea, where the Typhoon has been a contender, may follow suit.

This international competition has illuminated one of the major flaws in the international consortia model. As one analyst told the Financial Times, “Eurofighter delivers you four countries as strategic partners…[but] the down side is they have to negotiate with each other before they negotiate with you.”

With a finger in both the JSF and the Typhoon pies, BAE must proceed with caution. “We firewall our business,” says Anstiss. By isolating the programs from each other, there is little danger that the Typhoon, which is faster and carries more payload farther than the JSF, will suck much oxygen away from the F-35, or that the F-35 will send the Typhoon the way of the Raptor.

Whatever its fate in the global marketplace, the Typhoon will have a long life and prosper. In Britain, the future also means working well with a competing aircraft. “In the future, you could see the Joint Strike Fighter and Typhoon working closely together,” says Commander Adam Clink, now with the Joint Combat Aircraft Program at Whitehall, which oversees the integration of the F-35 into British service. The Typhoon, which by then will have matured as a multi-role combat jet, would work in concert with the Joint Strike Fighter, Clink says, providing cover while the JSF conducts deep penetrations into—and escapes from—heavily defended airspace.

But the cover would only go so far, owing to the Typhoon’s lack of stealthiness. When paired with a Typhoon on a combat mission, an F-35 at some point would have to fight on its own. “The F-35 is designed to operate in a high-threat environment, the Typhoon is not,” says Daniel Goure, a senior national security analyst at the Lexington Institute, a defense think tank in Arlington, Virginia. “The ability of the latter to provide air cover for the former depends on the intensity of the air-to-air and ground-to-air threats. The F-35 can go places a Typhoon could not.”

The JSF offers something else to Clink and his colleagues in the Fleet Air Arm: a carrier-based combat jet. With the decommissioning of HMS Ark Royal and retirement of the Harriers, the Royal Navy’s fixed-wing operations stood down. Royal Navy pilots are being assigned to U.S. carriers and war zones to stay current until about 2020, when they will begin flying the JSF from the two British carriers now being built in Scotland’s Firth of Forth.

The Typhoon and its rivals are the products of a kind of golden age of military aviation. But they are likely the last of their kind. There are no grand successors under development or, really, even contemplated. If and when the Typhoon and Lightning II go off to war, it will probably be with autonomous, unmanned combat aerial vehicles. They are the future. Firefox need not apply.

Carl Posey’s last story was about how U.S. air crews in World War II trained to drop the atomic bomb (“Wendover’s Atomic Secret,” Feb./Mar. 2011).

About Carl A. Posey

Novelist and award-winning science writer Carl A. Posey was the author of seven published novels, a number of non-fiction books, and dozens of magazine articles. He was a licensed pilot and an Air & Space magazine contributor for more than 30 years, beginning with its second issue in 1986. Posey died on February 9, 2018.

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