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By Robert Farley, The National Interest
The Eurofighter Typhoon has joined the Dassault Rafale, the Saab Gripen, and the Sukhoi “Flanker” in pursuit of a growing niche in the international fighter market. These aircraft offer capabilities beyond the Generation 4 platforms developed in the 1970s, but don’t carry the costs and complications of stealth. While the Eurofighter has enjoyed outstanding technical success thus far, the market niche may not be large enough to sustain production over time.
(This first appeared in 2016.)
In the 1970s, several Western European countries perceived a need for a new fighter aircraft. Older designs, often acquired from the United States, were reaching the end of the mature stages of their development, and desperately needed replacement. These included the F-4 Phantom and the F-104 Starfighter. The United States had developed the F-15 and F-16 in the 1970s, and the Soviets were threatening to leave the Europeans behind with the combination of the MiG-29 and Su-27.
The relative success of the multinational Panavia Tornado project had led to a heavy fighter that could conduct both penetrating strike and interception missions. The countries associated with the Tornado investigated several different projects for a lighter fighter optimized for air superiority missions. Spain, having joined NATO in 1982, also became part of the project, which had the side effect of reinvigorating the European military aviation industry.
France, an early partner, eventually dropped out over concerns about its domestic aviation industry, and the need for a carrier-capable variant. The Eurofighter project survived the collapse of defense spending at the end of the Cold War, with a prototype first flying in 1994. Operational Typhoons (continuing a naming convention that had begun with the Tornado) started entering service in 2003.
Around 450 Typhoons have entered service, with another 150 or so on order. The Typhoon incorporates lessons learned from fourth-generation fighters, while also including some capabilities associated with fifth-generation aircraft. The Typhoon has a top speed of Mach 2, a high service ceiling, an excellent thrust-to-weight ratio, and “supercruise” capabilities. Current Typhoons carry the last mechanically scanned radar array to be deployed in an advanced fighter, although new electronically scanned arrays may eventually replace these radars in older models. These features allow it to operate in teams that include either older fighters, or new aircraft such as the F-22 Raptor and the F-35 JSF.
In exercises, the Typhoon has quickly established a reputation as one of the world’s most formidable dogfighters, with high maneuverability and energy preservation characteristics. Advanced helmet and g-suit equipment allows Typhoon pilots to take advantage of these qualities to excellent effect. The Typhoon also has excellent Beyond-Visual Range (BVR) combat capabilities, carrying the AIM-120 missile and having a lower radar cross-section than any fourth-generation fighter. Although not a stealth fighter, the Typhoon design included some low observable qualities, as well as significant electronic warfare capabilities. Typhoons will soon begin to carry the MBDA Meteor long-range missile in operational capacity, which will only increase the lethality of the platform.
The Typhoon has trailed behind some contemporaries in air-ground capabilities, but upgrades to equipment and munitions have helped close that gap over the last few years. In Libya, the Royal Air Force needed to operate its Typhoons alongside older Tornados because the Eurofighters lacked advanced ground targeting capabilities. RAF Typhoons have also operated against ISIS, sometimes in spectacular fashion.
Within Europe, Germany, Spain, Italy, Austria, and the United Kingdom have all purchased the Typhoon. Of these, only Austria is outside the initial design consortium. The Typhoon has struggled a bit to find customers outside of Europe. Various bids to sell the aircraft to Asian, Middle Eastern, and Latin American customers have failed, as the aircraft has run up against tightening defense budgets and tough competition from the F-35, the Gripen, the Rafale, and an apparently endless series of Su-27 variants.
The Typhoon is subject to ITAR (International Traffic in Arms Regulations) restrictions, because it contains certain elements of US technology. However, the aircraft has seen success mainly in the Middle East, where it currently serves in the Royal Saudi Air Force. Oman and Kuwait have also arranged for purchase of the Typhoon, and Eurofighter continues to pursue bids with other Middle Eastern countries.
The development of the Typhoon did not clear the field of European fighter contenders. France, with its own aviation industry and its own specialized requirements (including carrier takeoff and landing capability) and Sweden would produce their own fighters, which continue to compete with the Typhoon for export contracts. The F-35 has come to dominate the fighter acquisition plans of many European countries, sucking up money and attention that might have gone to the Typhoon.
Still, for an aircraft effectively designed by a multinational committee, the Eurofighter has performed well in service, and has won an excellent reputation among aviation experts. It will continue to serve alongside both fourth- and fifth-generation fighters, providing a bridge and offering capabilities that complement either type.
Robert Farley, a frequent contributor to TNI, is a Visiting Professor at the United States Army War College. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.