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. (Roel Reijne)
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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.”


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