Original URL: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2010/09/21/eurofighter_battle_of_britain_debacle/

Crash grounds RAF Eurofighters - for Battle of Britain Day!

Pilot's death sees UK defended once again by Spitfire

By Lewis Page

Posted in Science, 21st September 2010 11:52 GMT

The RAF was left eggfaced in recent weeks as its entire force of fighters - nowadays made up of new and horrifyingly expensive Eurofighter "Typhoons" - was grounded following discovery of faults in their ejector seats. The grounding was particularly embarrassing as it came into force on Battle of Britain Day, the 70th anniversary of the RAF fighter force's greatest victory. Fortunately, Blighty was not left completely defenceless: WWII-vintage Spitfire and Hurricane fighters remained operational for flypasts and displays as their expensive successors became hangar queens.

Eurofighter and BBMF Spitfire. Credit: Karl Drage

One of these is a truly impressive British fighter plane.

Flightglobal reports that the Eurofighter grounding resulted from an incident last month in which a Saudi pilot was killed after ejecting from a jet operating from Morón airbase in Spain. It's thought that a fault in the design of the Martin Baker seat meant that the Saudi's parachute separated from his harness during the ejection so that he subsequently fell to his death.

The RAF grounded its Eurofighters on September 15, the official 70th anniversary of the Battle of Britain. Pilots were warned that they would have to fly even with faulty ejection seats in the event of any hostile incursion into UK airspace, but fortunately this did not occur. Some jets have now reportedly been modified so as to allow flying to resume, with priority being given to those units providing quick-reaction alert cover for the Falklands and the southern UK - the latter being the jets which would respond in the event of a 9/11 style attack being mounted against the capital.

Other Eurofighter nations including Germany and Italy also grounded their fighters, though Germany was able to fall back on some remaining veteran F-4 Phantoms to step into the Typhoons' place. The RAF, having now stood down its preceding Tornado F3s, had no operational fighters apart from the Spitfire and Hurricane flown by the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight.

Having originally been ordered in the 1980s, the Eurofighter is made in Spanish, German, Italian and British factories. It finally began reaching squadron service with the RAF in 2007*. The UK is on track to purchase 184 Eurofighters, more than the RAF can use. Manufacturers had actually expected the MoD to buy 232 of the jets under a multinational agreement signed in the early 1990s, but Treasury legal experts consider that the programme has violated a contractual cost ceiling and as a result only 184 planes need be bought. Details of the pact are secret for reasons of "commercial confidentiality".

In previous projects which saw aircraft bought which the RAF could not use, surplus planes have simply been mothballed as soon as they were delivered - examples include the Tornado F3 and the Nimrod MR2. However in this case the UK government is keen to resell its superfluous Eurofighters at the best price obtainable, despite objections from the makers to the effect that this is likely to destroy their export market. It has already been agreed that Saudi Arabia will receive 24 Eurofighters, in a deal which would see substantial "technology transfer" - that is that Saudi Arabia will learn all the various secrets packed into the jet. UK officials have also repeatedly hinted that they may manage to shift more Eurofighters to Oman or even Japan. The MoD has never made clear what proportion, if any, of the secondhand Eurofighter sales revenue comes off the eventual bill to the UK taxpayer.

In a few weeks, we may find that the Eurofighter is not just our only fighter - but our only fast jet of any kind

The useable RAF Eurofighter fleet seems set to stabilise at around 140 jets, including some spares to allow for crashes. Cost to the UK taxpayer for this fleet was estimated by the MoD in recent years as £20bn (£140m per jet), though this assumes planes mostly unmodified from the original design - conceived as a pure air-to-air fighter. Some RAF Eurofighters have now been modified to drop American smartbombs using an Israeli targeting pod, but the RAF is known to consider this an "austere" bomber capability and the air service is keen to see massive upgrades to at least some of its fleet, turning them into modern deep-penetration bombers capable of mounting raids against countries protected by the latest Russian missiles. Some reports have suggested that these modifications (if approved) could cost the UK taxpayer an additional £5bn and push the price per RAF jet to £180m - the same kind of price paid by the USA for its F-22 Raptor stealth superfighter. The Eurofighter, even if enhanced, would lack various technologies featured by the Raptor - most obviously Stealth and thrust vectoring. At the moment it doesn't even have a trendy electronically-scanned radar of the sort becoming de rigueur in fighters - and indeed in fairly ordinary cars.

With the new UK government's Strategic Defence and Security Review process now drawing to a close, plans are shortly to be unveiled which will cut MoD spending severely and cut planned expenditure even more severely - as planned expenditure for the next ten years has for a long time been much larger than the planned budget.

Various things may come from this: it has reasonably been suggested that the RAF may be stripped of all its fast jets except the Eurofighter. The Harrier jumpjet was to go soon in any event - indeed it has been suggested that the RAF would have been glad to swap it for Eurobomber upgrades before now, with (from the airmen's point of view) the added benefit of leaving the Royal Navy without any jets to fly from its carriers. Today's Harriers, both RAF and Navy operated, are organised as a single joint unit under RAF command.

The RAF would be much less happy to see its Tornado GR4 bomber fleet go, but this would save huge sums in running costs - doubtless enough to preserve the Eurofighter and perhaps to turn it into the modern deep-penetration bomber the airmen crave so much.

Even so, the Eurofighter more than any other single factor has been responsible for the lamentable mess in which our armed services - the joint-third best funded on the planet - currently find themselves. The billions squandered on Eurofighter and similar idiocies - Nimrod MRA4 et inglorious cetera - down the decades have crippled our combat forces, to the point where they struggle to deploy and properly support a single brigade engaged against primitively-equipped enemies.

Some of us at least will have felt, if not safer, then at any rate more cheerful to be protected as we were last month - by a trusty Spitfire. ®

Bootnote

*Channel 4's Dispatches programme, in an otherwise excellent report on MoD waste last night (briefly featuring your correspondent) stated that the Eurofighter was delivered "four years late" - perhaps causing some jaws to drop among knowledgeable viewers. One might note that the project was known at one point as "Eurofighter 2000", causing some red faces at BAE Systems and elsewhere as the new millennium came and went without the arrival of any jets. Even the "2000" rebranding was actually an attempt to conceal the fact that the plane had originally been mean to turn up no later than 1995.

Twelve years late would be a more accurate assessment.