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A Rare Ray of Sunshine for Fighter Makers

PARIS --- The German Bundestag’s Dec. 2 approval of the second batch of Eurofighter combat aircraft should go some ways to reviving the international combat aircraft market, as attention should now shift to Singapore’s Next Fighter Replacement competition.

While Germany is the first partner country to authorize Eurofighter’s Tranche 2, the other three partners (Britain, Italy and Spain) are expected to follow very shortly. That will clear the way for award of the actual Tranche 2 production contract, valued at about 14 billion euros for a total of 236 aircraft, sometime during the second half of December.

But the most significant consequence of the Tranche 2 contract is that it will finally allow Britain, acting on behalf of the four Eurofighter partners, to submit a formal offer to Singapore, where the Eurofighter is competing against Boeing’s F-15T and Dassault’s Rafale.

Lord Bach, the British Minister for Defence Procurement, is expected to travel to Singapore to submit the offer as soon as the Tranche 2 contract is signed. Eurofighter’s Tranche 2 standard includes certain modifications required by Singapore, and until these are fully funded and contracted the offer cannot be submitted.

Similar modifications were required by Singapore to the Rafale, and they are included in the 659 million euro contract for the aircraft’s F3 standard, awarded in February 2004 by the French ministry of defense. The F3 standard notably includes the capability to fire the AM-39 Exocet anti-ship missile, which is a major selling-point to Singapore.

Singapore is initially looking for 20 Next Fighter Replacement (NFR) aircraft to replace its ageing A-4 Skyhawks and F-5s, but it is believed that the requirement will ultimately cover as many as 60 aircraft.

Singapore is expected to select a winner sometime in 2005, and this will be welcome news to manufacturers as other long-running fighter competitions are becoming even more drawn out than anticipated.

This is notably the case in Brazil, where after missing several deadlines for selecting a new F-X fighter the government now appears to be dithering again in light of the politically weakened position of President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva and of continuing financial difficulties. The BAE Systems/Saab Gripen, the Mirage 2000BR, Lockheed Martin’s F-16 and the Sukhoi Su-30 are competing for an initial order of 12 new fighters, and a decision was due to be announced by year-end. However, local sources say the program may now be headed for an indefinite postponement, possibly of as much as three or four years, in which case Brazil would probably buy a dozen second-hand aircraft as an interim solution.

Some larger fighter contracts are also in doubt. If confirmed, the news that Greece had decided to cancel its planned buy of 60 Eurofighters and to re-open a new competition in 2005, is a major blow to Eurofighter, as it has only one other export order, for 18 aircraft from Austria.

The status of the Greek program is not quite clear, however. The decision to cancel the Eurofighter order – no contract had been signed – was widely reported in late November in the Greek press, which quoted defense ministry sources, but has not been officially confirmed.

Greece's former socialist government, which lost the general elections in March, had decided in 2000 to buy 60 Eurofighter jets, with another 30 on option, but in 2001 delayed delivery due to budget constraints.

The situation in India also appears confused. For some years, the Indian air force has been informally negotiating with Dassault to buy up to 140 additional Mirage 2000 fighters, but has recently asked BAE/Saab to make an offer for the same number of Gripens. In addition, Washington has reportedly signaled that it is willing to supply F-16 fighters, while the Indian air force may find it attractive to buy additional Sukhoi SU-30s, which Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd. is already assembling under license, to benefit from savings in logistics and training.

But the Indian government now appears to be tilting toward running a formal tender process for the new fighters, rather than direct negotiations with selected suppliers, and this could substantially postpone contract signature. There is a degree of urgency, however, as the MiG-21 and MiG-23/-27 fighters the new aircraft are intended to replace continue with their alarmingly high attrition rate. As of Nov. 27th, a total of 157 Indian Air Force pilots had been killed in MiG crashes, Defense Minister Pranab Mukherjee recently told Parliament, with an additional 40 civilian victims, so there is growing public pressure to retire the aircraft.

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Eurofighter Tranche 2 Provides Rare Comfort to Fighter Makers