The Eurofighter's 'Ground' Realities

It's a thumping irony. On the one hand, you have this overwhelming sense -- yoked along by literally unanimous Indian press leaks -- that the Eurofighter Typhoon leads the pack in India's $12-billion MMRCA fighter aircraft competition. On the other hand -- and you couldn't have missed them -- reports in the British press mercilessly pillorying the airplane programme. A brilliant headline in The Register goes "RAF Eurofighters Make Devastating Attack - on Parliament".

I don't think it is remotely far-fetched or cynical to suggest that the application of the Eurofighter over Libya (or for that matter, the Rafale), and the carefully calculated release of information about its achievements, has as much, if not more, to do with proving a point to its customers, both current and potential, as it does supporting operational alliance commitments (it was only last week that the Typhoon, previously confined to air-to-air operations over Libya, joined RAF Tornados for air interdiction duties).

The Typhoon programme, rather like the Tejas programme here in India, is and has been a deeply polarizing programme, buffeted for years in equal measure by staunch supporters and ruthless detractors. Operations in Libya only happened to cast into stark relief the findings of two reports, one by the British Parliamentary Accounts Committee, and an earlier one by the National Audit Office. Supporters call it a modern, multirole jet that's easy to maintain, has a low logistics footprint, and is one bad-ass in the sky. Critics say it's an expensive, hard to support air superiority fighter with manoeuverability that nobody needs in a BVR paradigm anyway.

Eurofighter hates the "ground attack" debate. And why not? It remembers how Singapore, which had shown healthy interest in the Typhoon in 2005, bailed and ordered Boeing Super Hornets F-15s instead. All because of questions that swirled incessantly around the Typhoon's efficacy as a strike platform. In 2008, the RAF got one of its Typhoons to light up a tent full of British defence journalists with its laser pod in a decidedly dramatic PR exercise to reassure the press about the aircraft's precision strike abilities.

But that apart, here's what reports, especially the recent ones, suggest: despite all the increments, the Eurofighter does not have mature ground attack capabilities. It's current strike ability is via a LITENING laser designator pod, and its last capability increment was the addition of EGBU-16 bomb avionic release capability. Finally, it will only truly emerge as a full-blown fighter-bomber at some future point this decade. That's the drift.

As far as the Indian fighter competition is concerned, the Eurofighter was put through weapons trials both in Germany and the UK. While EADS obviously won't discuss the details of the trials, Eurofighter boss Bernhard Gerwert says, "Eurofighter Typhoons delivered to the IAF will be the latest Tranche 3 aircraft with state-of-the-art electronic warfare sensors and communication systems. With its proven multi-role combat capability, this aircraft will provide the IAF with unrivalled air superiority and with sophisticated ground attack capabilities."

So where do things stand? What did the Eurofighter demonstrate to the Indian FET team? Did strike trials meet requirements? Obviously, these questions are strictly in the context of what we've been hearing in the last few weeks. I'll update this post once I hear from the folks at EF. As always, let me know what you think.

Photo ©RAF / By Corporal Babs Robinson

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