IT WAS the "fourth generation" aircraft designed to protect the skies above free Europe at the height of the Cold War. But, 15 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, after Perestroika and German reunification, Eurofighter is already accused of being years behind the times.
No single piece of military hardware has caused so much trouble for successive governments, in Britain and across Europe, as the ill-fated Eurofighter Typhoon. Beset by problems with design, hideous delays and enormous cost overruns, the fighter is already four years behind schedule.
It was with some relief that the British military, and the politicians in Whitehall, greeted the recent assurance that the "Jonah" of the defence establishment is finally ready to take its place on the front-line of the nation’s defences.
But, just as the Royal Air Force prepares to take delivery of the first of more than 200 Eurofighters to which it has been committed for almost a decade, it has emerged that the RAF will not have all of them in its hands for long.
A sheepish Ministry of Defence (MoD) has admitted that moves are already underway to sell off dozens of the brand-new super-fighters as soon as they are delivered.
"Some consideration has been given to the scope to provide for early export of Eurofighter Typhoon to potential overseas customers," admitted armed forces minister Adam Ingram. "If pursued, a sale might be accomplished by adjusting the delivery profile to the RAF. The RAF remains, however, the primary customer for these aircraft and any decision made will take full account of its requirements."
Britain has endured more than 20 years of frustration and embarrassment over the Eurofighter fiasco but now, at the last minute, the government appears to have had enough. In short, the UK has decided that it can do without many of the planes that were supposed to form the cornerstone of air defences for the next generation.
The MoD had been planning to spend 20b on 232 Eurofighters over the next 20 years, already 2.3bn above the original budget. They are hardly likely to recoup the overspend by selling the planes off at knock-down prices overseas.
Defence analysts and opposition politicians last night admitted that the news represented a truly astonishing twist in the Eurofighter saga. But, for a procurement process that has been dogged by farcical hurdles, including the latest official warning that its pilots should not fly in cloud, it is surely the only appropriate finale.
Yet the switch in policy may, in fact, represent the overdue application of common sense to the Eurofighter imbroglio. In the first place, within a department that is facing its most troubling financial situation for some years, offloading such expensive aircraft does follow a certain logic.
"In the next couple of months, the government is going to announce that it will make the most swingeing cuts to our armed forces," observed Tory defence spokesman Gerald Howarth. "They are looking to make savings wherever they can."
Ministers deny that they are planning to impose such drastic budget restrictions on an arm of government that routinely complains of "overstretch", but the signals from within the MoD tell a radically different story. The department’s most senior civil servant, Sir Kevin Tebbit, has already admitted that the armed forces face major cuts because of Treasury spending restrictions.
The Royal Navy and the RAF are preparing to endure the most severe cuts, and expensive new projects, notably the Eurofighter Typhoon, are inevitably under greater scrutiny.
Under proposals thrashed out within the MoD itself, the RAF would lose all of its 141 Jaguar and Harrier ground attack aircraft, its 39 Puma helicopters and a number of bases. Reducing the number of Eurofighters to be maintained in the fleet would free cash to be spent elsewhere.
Recent attention has concentrated on the possibility of the UK scaling down its original commitment - given by a previous Tory Government - to buying 232 of the planes, slashing the figure by up to a half.
But, with the first tranche of 55 to be delivered by 2006, their room for manoeuvre in the short term is limited. It would also risk more political fall-out with Britain’s partners in the project: Italy, Spain and Germany. The most acceptable alternative to emerge is an agreement that Britain will meet its commitment, but seek to reduce the costs by selling up to 20 of the first delivery elsewhere. Singapore, Austria and Greece have emerged as the most likely customers.
Howarth, at least, recognises the spin-off value of what would inevitably be an embarrassing development, to British manufacturers including BAE, which are heavily involved in the Eurofighter project.
"Providing we have sufficient cover, if some of the production-line places allocated to the RAF are allocated to the open market, I cannot complain," he told Scotland on Sunday. "Defence sales are hugely important to the UK because, without them, our unit costs for our own equipment would be incredibly expensive."
The wider argument, one more enduring than any short-term budget crisis, is that the UK would simply not need so many of the new planes, even if it could easily find the money to pay for them. Some critics, in fact, argue that, with the Cold War threat having evaporated, Britain does not really need the new planes at all.
"The really ironic thing is that the planes we might have the most need for, the ground-attack variant of the Eurofighter, are in the third tranche [of 88 planes], and that is the one most at risk of being cancelled," Liberal Democrat defence spokesman Paul Keetch told Scotland on Sunday.
"The first tranche, the air-defence Eurofighters, are terribly good aircraft, but there is no longer any aerial threat to the UK, so who are we going to use them on? The only nation with a comparable capability is the United States and, short of going to war with them, I can’t see us ever needing any of these planes."
Howarth insists that Eurofighter, and particularly the ground attack variant, will be vital in defending British forces and interests in future conflicts. "We don’t want to find ourselves ranged against a country that has air supremacy over us," he said.
"Without supremacy in the air you put your men at risk on the ground. With the anniversary of D-Day coming up, anyone who thinks we can just get rid of planes like these should be reminded of the slaughter that can be suffered by ground forces if you do not win the battle in the skies above them."
The difference in philosophy, which has forced the Eurofighter to face charges that it is "obsolete" even before it enters service, underlines the perils of allowing the process of designating, ordering and developing a crucial piece of military equipment to drag on for years.
Above all, it emphasises a fundamental problem with the project: the fact that it was as much a political expedition as a military one. In its earliest days, the Eurofighter dream, originally the European Fighter Aircraft, was heading for oblivion when the French pulled out, deciding to develop their own Rafale fighter. Eurofighter’s fiercest critics, and some of its stoutest defenders, might find themselves wishing it had ended there.
At the MoD, however, the mood remains defiantly optimistic. "Maybe next time we go into a project with the Italians and the Germans and the Spanish we’ll get it right first time."