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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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).


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