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Eurofighter Tranche 3: Oh please, God, no

BAE and Brown stick it to taxpayers, troops again

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Comment So the fix is in. The Treasury's attempt during recent weeks to kill off the final UK tranche of cripplingly expensive Eurofighter combat jets will be quashed, on the personal orders of Gordon Brown. Money will be taken from taxpayers, and lives will be lost among British troops, to buy aircraft which won't be any use - some may never even fly.

A lot of people will be glad to see Eurofighter Tranche 3 survive, though. US-centred global weapons firm BAE Systems, which still has perhaps 30 per cent of its employees here in Blighty, will be very pleased to take another few billion from the UK taxpayers to fund its continuing move out of Britain. Perhaps as many as 16,000 arms-industry workers up and down the land will see their jobs secured for a few more years - as will the many overseas workers who will contribute to the building of the RAF's Eurofighters, both in Europe and in America. (Oh yes - the Eurofighter is full of American stuff.)

The business press will welcome the decision, as will many local news outlets. Money men and a very tiny slice of the British workforce will be pleased.

The RAF won't be all that excited - they had hoped that Britain's Tranche 3 Eurofighters would be massively upgraded from the Tranche 1 and 2 versions. They wanted to convert the jet from a highly specialist air-to-air fighter (some these days with an "austere" bolt-on capability to drop smart bombs) into a multirole deep strike/electronic warfare plane, able to blast and jam its way deep into a powerful enemy air-defence network of the sort seen in Syria and (perhaps soon) Iran.

But such plans, according to reports, would have set Blighty back by as much as £5bn on top of the original Eurofighter procurement estimate of £20bn. The Treasury are now so desperate for savings that they were quite willing to cancel the £1-2bn Tranche 3 payment altogether; they certainly aren't going to find an optional extra £5bn. So we can take it that Tranche 3 Eurofighter may be somewhat more of a Eurobomber than Tranches 1 and 2, but not as much as the RAF would like.

We can also take it that the UK government will sell on absolutely every Eurofighter it can possibly shift - to the Saudis, the Japanese, anybody it can get American permission to sell to. As nobody else wants a highly-specialised air-to-air only aircraft either, it will be the later and more capable planes which get sold. The RAF's relatively basic air-to-air-only ones "will quickly be equipped with a potent precision ground-attack capability", the government says - ie they will stay at the "austere" level for a long time.

Nobody else will even notice all this. We other 99+ per cent of British taxpayers, whose money will be squandered on buying jets for onward sale (probably at knockdown prices) or to sit unused in storage, won't pay any attention, for instance.

But it matters. We currently keep a force of 8,300 fighting troops in Afghanistan: on the general military "pairs of pants" principle (one on, one in the drawer, one in the wash) this commitment ties up at least 25,000 service personnel. In reality, many more than this number are probably rotating through combat theatres overseas at regular intervals right now.

Say 30,000 or more of our military people are at war - real serious war - at the moment. Money spent on things they actually need preserves their lives and limbs, it's that simple. Working helicopters save lives; the right kinds of ground vehicles save lives; aerial surveillance and strike - easily delivered by nice cheap drones - save lives. Body armour, better weapons, satcomms bandwidth - and helicopters, helicopters, helicopters.

There's no need for air-to-air superfighters hastily converted to be an unbelievably expensive way of dropping basic ordnance. Even if there were, we've already ordered 144 Eurofighters under Tranches 1 and 2, all that the RAF can possibly man or use and then some.

Sure, refusing to order more might subject us to some contract penalties from the partner nations. We ordinary folk don't know the details, because all the negotiations have been kept secret. But the Treasury people know: if they thought it would cost more to cancel than it would to carry on, they'd never have tried to cancel.

So we can take it that, in fact, cancelling would save us taxpayers and our combat troops money. Thus we can surmise that Gordon Brown has decided to press ahead because he has had his arm twisted, by BAE, by the unions and by local MPs worried about those possible 16,000 job losses.

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