Carrying hopes of so many

BAE's mighty Eurofighter Typhoon - built and developed on the Fylde Coast
BAE's mighty Eurofighter Typhoon - built and developed on the Fylde Coast
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IN April 1994, workers watched with pride as the Typhoon -– then still called Eurofighter – took off from the Warton airfield for its maiden flight in the UK.

All those present knew the significance of the occasion.

For riding on the plane’s success were the jobs of thousands of people.

Since then, 108 of the aircraft have rolled off the Warton production line, and they have seen active service, including most recently in Libya.

The journey from blueprint to battlefield was not always smooth, with rows over spiralling costs and delays as the four partner nations got to grips with the joint programme.

But what everyone agreed on was they had created a world-beater, a multi-role combat jet which could fly at supersonic speeds, with an outstanding capacity for airborne agility thanks to its fly-by-wire control system.

And now, more than ever, Typhoon will be called upon to fulfil the belief of its creators, as bosses at BAE Systems endeavour to win new contracts for the aircraft after a dwindling order book forced the company to announce more than 800 jobs losses at the Warton site.

This dogfight will not take place over a tense battlefield, but in the corridors of power, as those few governments still with money to spend on defence mull over their options.

The biggest prize on the horizon is to meet a requirement from India for 126 war planes, worth $10bn.

Typhoon is down to the final two – up against the French-built Dassault Rafale.

Indian ministers are expected to meet next month to discuss the procurement, and want an aircraft in service by 2015.

Industry experts believe the Fylde-built jet is in with a strong chance, especially as it has proved its versatility in action during recent skirmishes in Libya.

But performance is not always enough – workshare arrangements, political deals and of course cost are also key.

Peter Felstead, editor of Jane’s Defence Weekly, says the Indian contract is vital for BAE.

He told The Gazette: “It depends on unit costs and workshare deals, but Typhoon does have the edge over Rafale from a technical aspect.

“Both of these aircraft can now be said to be combat proven in Libya.

“The Typhoon, as well as having been in service in an air to air role, has now been proven as an air to ground aircraft, dropping bombs and missiles.

“It is a multi-role aircraft and virtually all aircraft now have to be multi-role.

“There are only a few really major contracts out there and India is the great prize.

“I think Typhoon has a really good opportunity in India.

“It is just a shame the lay-offs have to happen in advance of that.

“If BAE knew absolutely that it would clinch the India deal, perhaps it could have held off.”

Last year BAE secured a £500m deal to sell 57 Hawk trainer jets to India with the aircraft being built under licence in the sub-continent.

But the Typhoon deal, if secured, would see parts for at least the first 34 aircraft in the order manufactured at BAE’s factories in Warton and Samlesbury.

RAF pilots train on the Hawk before graduating to Typhoon.

Globally, growth in defence spending has slowed to just 1.3 per cent, with European nations cutting spending by 2.8 per cent, according to figures from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.

Nations such as Qatar, Oman and Malaysia may also be in the market for new warplanes.

But their orders are likely to be only in the region of a few dozen aircraft.

Another rival for these contracts is from the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter being developed in the US, but that will not enter service for a few years yet.

Fylde MP Mark Menzies is among those banging the drum for Typhoon.

He said: “It has demonstrated in Libya it can perform to an impressive standard, which is why governments across the world are interested in buying this aircraft.

“I have seen both the Rafale and Typhoon perform at the Royal International Air Tattoo at RAF Fairford, and I can safely say the Typhoon was by far the more superior aircraft.

“I can’t believe the Indian government would want to settle for a second rate aircraft in Rafale. India deserves the best and the best is Typhoon.”

Let’s hope he is proven right and Typhoon can win the vital new orders needed to safeguard Fylde jobs in the future.