Eurofighter Typhoon: It's EVEN WORSE than we thought
RAF gets just 107 jets – and new budget trainwreck looms
Analysis Yesterday the UK National Audit Office published a detailed report on the current status of the infamous Eurofighter combat jet – nowadays officially known as Typhoon. We here on the Reg defence desk have always had a low opinion of the cripplingly expensive, marginally useful fighter: but even we were amazed by the new facts and figures. The Eurofighter, almost unbelievably, is turning out to be even worse value for money than we had thought.
This plane is new and has just been expensively upgraded.
It will be scrapped soon.
Probably the most dismal figure we are given is that the RAF will actually put into service just 107 Typhoons. At the moment it has received 70: the last of the 160 planes ordered by the UK will be delivered in 2015. But, we are told, "by 2019" all the Tranche 1 jets (which were still being delivered to the RAF at the start of 2008) will be "retired" – that is, thrown away. We'll pay for 160 jets (actually we'll pay for 2321), but we'll only ever get a fleet of 107.
This shows the acquisition cost of the Eurofighter/Typhoon in an even worse light than it had previously appeared, when an RAF fleet of 160 had been expected. It is now acknowledged that the development and production cost to the UK of Eurofighter will be £23bn with planned upgrades.
This means that we UK taxpayers will have shelled out no less than £215m for each of our 107 jets – that's $350m at today's rates, rather more than the US taxpayers have been made to pay for each of their 185 Raptor superfighters2, almost all of which will be used operationally. And the Raptor has third-generation Stealth: the Eurofighter has no stealth features at all. The Raptor has thrust vectoring for unbeatable manoeuvrability in a dogfight: the Eurofighter doesn't.
The Raptor is a hugely more sophisticated and powerful aircraft, and is actually – astonishingly – somewhat cheaper, despite the fact that it is being made in much smaller numbers than the Eurofighter!
That's a really astonishingly bad bit of value for money on our part.
Unfortunately the problems won't be over when the final RAF Typhoons are delivered. There are major problems with spare parts and support, unsurprisingly as the Eurofighter's manufacturing is distributed across Germany, Spain and Italy as well as the UK. The NAO auditors write:
There are indications of problems with the collaborative contracts for the supply of spares and repair of equipment. There have been shortages of spares and long timescales for equipment repairs on some of these contracts ...
The  spares procurement contract does not include penalties for late delivery ...
To compensate, the Department [the MoD] has had to take parts from some of its Typhoon aircraft to make other aircraft available to fly.
Oh, those troublesome foreigners and their ramshackle collaborative arrangements! Who could possibly have been responsible for such a rubbish setup?
... the Department played a central role in establishing the collaborative management structures that still exist today.
As the biggest buyer, it was actually the good old MoD which had the biggest input into setting up the multinational collaboration system – and it seems to have done its usual brilliant job.
RAF pilots won't be ready to do bombing missions until 2016 – by which time we'll be throwing away planes expensively modified for use as bombers.
Needless to say, there have been and will continue to be serious consequences resulting from the lack of spares. Our pilots can't get into the air to train:
The Department has consistently failed to meet the specified targets for annual flying hours, despite reducing its targets. Problems with the timely supply of spares and repair of equipment under the collaborative support contracts [which the MoD itself is mainly responsible for] have been a contributing factor to this failure ...
Hedgehog, Womble, Lofty and JT liked to go and sit in one for a bit even though they usually weren't allowed to fly it
The lack of planes actually fit to fly is serious – the NAO reports that of the 70 Eurofighters the RAF currently possesses, just 42 are actually available to flying squadrons. And the lack of flight hours has meant that some flyboys haven't been able to get into the cockpit at all:
In 2010, the RAF temporarily grounded five pilots.
Basic air-defence skills have been maintained, but there aren't enough pilots ready to fly ground attack missions and there won't be for some time.
The RAF currently has eight pilots who are capable of undertaking ground attack missions on Typhoon ... The Department plans to have sufficient numbers of trained pilots to conduct a small scale ground attack mission by 2014 and aims to deliver sufficient flying hours to train enough pilots to undertake the full range of planned tasks by 2016.
What a joy it is to think that we paid £119m3 to upgrade the Tranche 1 planes back in 2008 so that they could do ground attack. In 2016 the RAF will finally have the pilots it needs to use this capability: but by then the Tranche 1s will already be being thrown away – all of them will be gone by 2019, remember.
We paid all that money upgrading the Tranche 1s and now we'll dispose of them without ever having pilots trained to use the upgrade! The Eurofighter story really just gets better and better.
Another depressing piece of news is that not all the paucity of flying hours comes from the spares problem largely created by the MoD. Another difficulty has arisen from our cunning British plan to get the Saudis to buy 24 of the RAF's contractually-obligated 184 planes (that's how the government managed to reduce its order to 160 without breaching its deal with industry and the partner nations).
Eurofighter will be really useful as a bomber ... for about three years
That guy learning? Probably a Saudi
Unfortunately the Saudis are understandably demanding to have pilots trained to fly their new jets, and the MoD – desperate not to be compelled to pay for and then scrapheap Tranche 2 planes as well as Tranche 1s – gaily agreed to sort this out.
Mournfully the NAO notes:
Flying hours diverted to training export customers could keep two RAF pilots fully trained in all roles [both air defence and ground attack] in 2010-11 and four in 2011-12. Similarly, support for export campaigns, such as flying demonstrations, has to be managed by the Programme Board from existing resources, diverting them from the RAF.
Given that we only have eight flyboys capable of flying ground attack at the moment, those are significant numbers (and you have to suspect that the five flyers we grounded last year were bumped from their seats by Saudis). Let's hope that the spares situation can be sorted and we can train more pilots, because the plan is to progressively fit the 107 jets which will remain in service with a fairly comprehensive ground-attack suite including not just smartbombs but the Storm Shadow bunker-busting cruise missile.
It would certainly be embarrassing to pay billions for these upgrades and then not have any airmen ready to make use of them – and this is the more so as there will only be a brief window of time where the upgrades will be really necessary.
No, we're not making this up. The NAO says:
Newer Typhoon aircraft will have progressively enhanced multi-role capability by 2018. By this time Typhoon is likely to be the aircraft of choice for both ground attack and air defence.
Not for long, though:
The Department plans to move, by 2021, to a fast jet fleet comprising two aircraft types: Typhoon and Joint Strike Fighter.
The F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter is specifically designed with ground attack in mind, and unlike the Eurofighter/Typhoon it is a stealth aircraft – fourth-generation stealth, in fact. As soon as the RAF (and the Navy) get the F-35, the Typhoon will certainly no longer be the aircraft of choice for ground attack – and quite likely not for air-to-air combat either, at least in some circumstances.
You really have to question why we're bothering to turn our Eurofighters into bombers at all, to be blunt. The truth of the matter is that we have to buy the bloody things anyway, and even after throwing more than fifty of them away while still brand new we'll be keeping more than a hundred - far too many for the job of protecting UK airspace, the only thing they're really much good for. So we'll throw good money after bad trying to make them useful.
'Living within the planned budget for running costs will be challenging' – No sh*t, Sherlock
Unfortunately this means that we'll need to support them and keep them flying into the future – all the way to 2030 on current plans. In general, a military aircraft typically costs two or three times in support over its lifetime what it cost to acquire: that would be a horrifying £46bn at minimum in the case of Eurofighter, enough to replace Trident twice over. Allowing for the fact that we will scrap 53 planes of 160 early, we'd still be looking at £30bn or more.
Amazingly, however, the MoD tells the NAO that it expects to pay no more than £13.1bn to keep its fleet flying until the end of its life. As the auditors dryly note, "Living within the support cost budget will be challenging". They point up some problems in particular:
The Department is confident that it can deliver the full range of support for the reduced number of aircraft within the originally approved figure of £13.1 billion.
Risks remain ... prices on Typhoon contracts are negotiated with United Kingdom industry on a non-competitive basis under longstanding agreements which enable industry to recover agreed overhead costs. The Strategic Defence and Security Review accelerated the retirement of Harrier to April 2011 and committed to reduce the Tornado fleet by half by 2015 with consequent reductions on work placed with industry. Unless industry is incentivised to restructure to manage this reduced workflow there is a risk that, under the existing arrangements, the costs of under-utilised industry assets will be re-charged to the Department on its remaining contracts – notably Typhoon ...
The collaborative arrangements present serious challenges if the Department is to upgrade and support the aircraft quickly and cost-effectively ...
And indeed the MoD, referring to its pie-in-the-sky £13.1bn estimate of Typhoon support costs, admits in a very small footnote:
[Estimates of support] costs exclude ... the impact of Strategic Defence and Security Review decisions and the impact of changes to industry overheads.
Or, put more plainly, the £13.1bn support costs figure is rubbish: but nobody at the MoD cares as this will only become apparent some years down the road and thus it will be Somebody Else's Problem. The "conspiracy of optimism" is plainly still alive and well at MoD Main Building.
When the cost overruns begin, even though everyone in the MoD who cares must be well aware or at the very least suspect that they're going to happen, nobody will get in trouble for concocting these fictitious budget plans – because nobody is responsible for them. Yes, you read that right. As the NAO puts it:
A key issue is that there is no individual who is accountable and clearly in charge of the whole project.
So there you have it. For more than 20 years the Eurofighter has paralysed the British armed forces, draining budgets, taking resources away from more useful things, costing more than Trident or a fleet of space shuttles twice the size of NASA's. Its long, drawn-out, agonising procurement process is finally drawing to a close; we finally have decentish non-stealth fighters protecting the UK after the many years in which the dismal Tornado F3 was our only defence (funnily enough we scrapped large numbers of those almost unused, too).
But now we will spend billions more to make the Typhoon into a deep-strike bomber, a role it will be able to carry out usefully for about three years. The odds are good that the Typhoon will never drop a bomb in combat. But it has, nonetheless, already deposited a massive obvious timebomb in the Defence budget – one which will go off at some point down the road whenever anyone at the MoD finally plucks up the courage to admit that the support costs figure has been deliberately lowballed.
It would be lovely to think that we can all forget about the Eurofighter now, that its malign effects on the whole UK defence establishment – indeed, the whole UK government, when you reflect on the history of the Saudi buy and associated events – are finally diminishing.
But it's not true. This albatross will be around our necks for many years yet. ®
1That was the original order when the project kicked off, and the price has not gone down – just the numbers of jets.
2Development and procurement cost of the Raptor for 183 useable jets is stated at approximately $62bn by the US air force, putting each jet at $339m.
3To be fair, the MoD now plans to transfer some of the equipment onto newer jets: but £85m was spent fitting it to the Tranche 1s, and presumably a similar amount will go on transferring it to the later aircraft. The decision to put ground attack kit on Tranche 1 at all remains almost unbelievable, given that most of the planes will go out of service never having been flown by a pilot capable of flying ground attack missions.