LONDON – In Europe, it is revered as a fearsome, lethal aircraft – the newborn pride of a defense industry that had fallen on hard times. In the U.S. defense industry, it is considered Europe’s answer to Lockheed Martin’s F-16 – two decades too late.
The Eurofighter, produced by a consortium involving Britain, Germany, Spain and Italy, is about to come of age and may pose the biggest threat yet to the dominance of the Fort Worth-made F-16 in the international market.
“This is high-stakes competition for a shrinking market,” said Tim Lomparis, a professor of political science and a weapons technology expert at St. Louis University.
The Europeans “aren’t about to sit by and watch Lockheed Martin swallow the whole market, particularly the market in Europe,” he said.
But the Europeans may also take a tip from the French and sell their plane where the United States will not. Markets off-limits to U.S. companies, such as Pakistan and India, may be fertile ground for the Eurofighter.
“It will be interesting to see where India and Pakistan now go for fighters,” Lomparis said. “One notices that the Europeans have been tepid about following the lead of the United States on sanctions there.”
Some experts say the Eurofighter carries the hopes of saving the European fighter aircraft industry. It is, experts say, on the verge of gaining an upper hand in countries where the aerospace industry is heavily involved in the project.
That would include most countries in the European Union, where the program is projected to employ as many as 150,000 once it reaches peak production in the next decade.
“It will do best among the European nations,” said William Dane, an analyst with Forecast International of Newtown, Conn., which studies the aerospace industry. “It will benefit industry even in countries that are not in the consortium.”
The aircraft was conceived in 1983 during the Cold War. Development began in 1988, just a year before the Berlin Wall fell. Since then it has been mired in funding problems as Germany wavered.
But in December, the Eurofighter got its biggest boost when the defense ministers from all four member countries signed a contract to build the warplane. Britain has ordered 232 Eurofighters, Germany 180, Italy 121 and Spain 87.
With 620 planes, the Eurofighter has the largest number of orders for any fighter in development.
That can only help sell the fighter in countries that might question the cost predictions on a plane that now flies only as a prototype.
The planes are to be delivered between 2002 and 2014.
The Eurofighter will come to the forefront, however, in the same time frame as the U.S.-made F-22 and Joint Strike Fighter. That leads some experts to speculate that even if the Eurofighter enjoys a favorable market, it probably will not last for long.
It also competes with an F-16 that has a 20-year advantage in the market. The F-16, flown by 19 countries, has been used to fly tens of thousands of sorties by the Air Force and U.S. allies.
Longtime customer Israel used its F-16s in 1982 to shoot down 44 Syrian MiGs without a loss. Lockheed Martin is teamed with British Aerospace in its bid to win the contract to build the Joint Strike Fighter. British Aerospace is deeply involved in the Eurofighter program and is a primary contractor.
Lockheed, insiders say, adheres to an informal policy of not making negative statements – at least in public – about the Eurofighter.
“You have to give the current generation of the F-16 credit, it is a very advanced airplane,” Lockheed spokesman Joe Stout said. “Future variants … will be the most advanced production fighters in the world when they come out.”
It could also be said that Lockheed Martin has let the F-16 speak for itself.
Last month the company won a $7 billion contract with the United Arab Emirates for 80 F-16s. The competition pitted the Eurofighter and F-16 in a head-to-head battle that did not appear to be close.
The F-16 was projected as the winner months before the announcement by the emirates and the Clinton administration.
The next test will come in Norway, which is seeking 48 new fighters. Both the F-16 and Eurofighter are in contention. One of the seven Eurofighter prototypes was in Norway this week for test flights.
“We think they are pretty well even,” said Per-Oscar Jacobsen, the Norwegian Air Force chief of staff, after the Eurofighter flew at a base outside Oslo.
The two planes are also competing for orders in Greece, a longtime F-16 customer.
The Eurofighter is a twin-engine fighter capable of aerial dogfighting or bombing ground targets. It is said to have an advanced radar system that allows pilots to track and target many enemy aircraft from miles away and fire missiles to shoot them down before they know the Eurofighter is present.
The fighter also has an advanced flight computer, can fly at Mach 2, twice the speed of sound, and, according to its makers, is as maneuverable and agile as the F-16, an aircraft renowned for its dogfighting capability.
The F-16 can also fly past Mach 2 and its agility has yet to be matched, although the French and Soviet aerospace industries tried with the Mirage 2000 and MiG-29.
Its radar system over the years has been improved dramatically and is expected to be improved again.
The aircraft to be sold to the emirates are expected to be the most advanced F-16s to date. The “Block 60” F-16, the version planned for the emirates, will boast avionics and radar systems more advanced than even the version currently used by the Air Force.
It will also have extended range and be able to use weapons not found on F-16s flown by many countries.
Lockheed Martin executives acknowledge that the Eurofighter consortium has conducted a savvy campaign to sell the aircraft. It has been featured at major air shows in Paris and London for years, and its prototypes have begun flying at shows around the world.
A team of sales representatives work the governments of potential customers and do their best to compare the Eurofighter to competing aircraft.
“They have taken a real lesson from the F-16 in how they pitch their airplane,” said one Lockheed executive, who asked not to be identified. “They talk a lot about reliability and ease of maintenance. You can see that what they strive for in their design are the things that the F-16 has been known for a long time.”
Michael D. Towle, (202) 382-6104 firstname.lastname@example.org
Copyright 1998 Star-Telegram, Inc.