Fifteen years after it entered service, the Eurofighter Typhoon has finally achieved true multirole capability. Britain’s Royal Air Force (RAF) says that a three-year effort to add the long-range Storm Shadow cruise missile and the shorter-range Brimstone ground attack missile has been completed. The Typhoon was already capable of dropping Paveway ‘smart’ bombs.
BAE Systems, together with weapons maker MBDA and radar/systems provider Leonardo have earned no less than £425 million ($550 million) from this effort – nice work if you can get it. Named Project Centurion, it also included integration of the long-range Meteor air-to-air missile. Completion of the work will allow the RAF to withdraw its long-serving Tornado strike aircraft next month. The service is also developing concepts of operations that allow Typhoons and F-35s to conduct synergistic joint missions. The RAF has just declared Initial Operating Capability (IOC) with its first nine F-35Bs to reach the UK.
I must admit, I was sceptical about the feasibility of adding heavy weapons like the Storm Shadow to the Typhoon. The jet was designed with a significantly aft centre of gravity that optimized it for agility in air-to-air missions. I suspect that it has taken some serious tweaking of the fly-by-wire software, and the fuel transfer system, to allow safe carriage of the Storm Shadow. But a senior RAF officer assured me recently that the envelope for launching that weapon from the Typhoon “is as good as on the Tornado”.
Most commentators have failed to acknowledge one significant capability that will not be transferred from the Tornado to the Typhoon. That is the RAPTOR imaging sensor pod, which has provided invaluable to coalition operations over Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria. As force commanders repeatedly state, you can never get enough ISR (Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance). The maker of the RAPTOR, UTA Aerospace Systems (now Collins Aerospace) offered an updated version of the pod for carriage on the Typhoon’s centerline station. But it quickly became apparent that the idea was not affordable within the UK’s stretched defence budget – especially when BAE Systems’ charge for integration was considered.
Will the multirole Typhoon now attract new export customers? I doubt it. As the unit recurring flyaway cost of a fifth-generation F-35A reduces towards the promised $80 million, the more expensive fourth-generation Typhoon will be a tough sell. Even when it is equipped with the long-awaited AESA radar – one of many examples of the slow adoption of upgrades thanks to the unwieldy four-nation programme management. Yes, the life-cycle costs of the Typhoon are much better known than the F-35, but non-fiscal considerations weigh heavily in many countries.
The sad fact is, despite a huge marketing effort, Eurofighter has never won what I consider to be a thorough and professionally-run competition. Some years ago, Singapore and Switzerland both chose other options. (In a referendum, the Swiss people subsequently voted against acquiring a new combat aircraft). In this decade, India chose the Rafale and Belgium, Denmark and Korea chose the F-35. Who has bought Typhoons? Four oil-rich Arab nations and – controversially – Austria.
Germany has recently rejected the F-35 as its Tornado replacement, and may buy more Typhoons. But that is a political decision. The chief of the Luftwaffe was in favour of the F-35, as I explained in this article for AIN in November 2015. Since then, he has been obliged to retire early.