Eurofighter Tranche 3: Oh please, God, no
BAE and Brown stick it to taxpayers, troops again
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.
Did I hear that right? £20bn for Eurofighters is value for money, but £20bn for Trident isn't?
So 16,000 people keep their jobs and the rest of us pay them. And those 30,000+ other people who work for us in uniforms - who work a hell of a lot harder, who get paid a hell of a lot less at every level, who are being killed and maimed every day right now, who are often enough housed like pigs when they're at home - they can wait for the things they need.
And they'll wait a bloody long time, because in a few more years the Tranche 3 production run will be over, and those 16,000 arms workers and their lobbyists will be back with their begging bowls and their threats again, saying we should ignore the needs of our 150,000 infinitely more deserving servicemen and women. Once again, we'll be told that vital industrial skills could be lost. Once again, nobody will point out that if these people are actually valuable high-tech sorts, they could easily get jobs elsewhere - jobs that wouldn't require massive government handouts - in the various successful high-tech UK industries so starved of skilled people right now.
Seriously, Eurofighter workers. If you really are capable of doing something other than making jet fighters - something relevant and high-tech that would actually benefit the British economy* - go and do that, and the rest of us will worship you like gods.
If you aren't able to - if in fact all you can do is make fighter planes - tough. We don't need another 90 fighters, and it's quite plain that you can't sell what you make to anyone else unless we pay your development costs - usually not even then. It would be cheaper for the rest of us (much, much cheaper) to have you on the dole.**
And you, Gordon Brown. Your announcement (Word doc) that Tranche 3 will go ahead, pleasingly, makes no actual commitments whatsoever. So feel free to walk back on it as soon as you like.
And you, Cameron, as you seem likely to be taking over next year. You've said that you might cut anything in Defence in order to balance the government's books - even Trident, which may cost as much as £20bn to replace in the near future.
Consider that Eurofighter will have cost at least that much once it finally moves out of acquisition. Reflect that, indeed, membership of the assured-second-strike*** nuclear club may not confer the clout it once did - but for goodness' sake, acknowledge that it's more clout than you get by having a fleet of second-rate combat jets without stealth or proper multirole capability. It's more clout than you get by having a fleet of lovingly-maintained vintage de Havilland Comets. It's more worthwhile than one-trick-pony air defence destroyers, or fantastically over-budget and delayed A400M Euro transport planes which were already very expensive for what they do.
Cancel all that lot, for goodness' sake. Keep Trident. Buy some proper, working helicopters and transport planes and drones. Look after the people on the government payroll who actually matter, and let the fighter bloodsuckers sink or swim. ®
*Defence exports? Don't even go there. We export about £1.4bn of defence manufactures in a normal year and import around three-quarters of a billion's worth. In order to achieve this paltry half-billion balance of payments benefit, we are forced to waste the majority of our £15bn annual defence materiel budget. If we had to subsidise all our exports to this tune, it would require far more than our entire GDP.
**Sixteen thousand UK workers will be the peak number employed by Eurofighter during acquisition/manufacture, according to the government: far fewer will have had jobs for most of the time it has been underway. Say 10,000 on average, to be generous. The acquisition programme will have cost more than £20bn when it winds up in a few years' time. That equates to average annual cost per job of nearly £70,000. We could have given all those people severance payoffs of half a million quid, bought 140 F-15Es from the States ages ago and come out at least £6bn ahead. In fact we could probably have avoided buying the Tornado F3 too, so we'd have done even better.
***No, air-launched cruise missiles, bombs or whatnot will not do, regardless of what the air force may tell you. You need proper ballistic missiles, because the other side need to be sure your counterstrike can't be stopped. (Unless you're the sort of person who thinks nukes are for using on people who haven't already nuked us.) The ballistic missiles need to be on submarines, because the other side need to be sure they can't find them and take them out before launch.