Missions over Libya may spur sales of Eurofighter GmbH’s 65 million-pound ($106 million) Typhoon warplane as the enforcement of a no-fly zone against Muammar Qaddafi gives the jet a chance to prove its battle credentials.
The 1,500-mile-an-hour Typhoon, built by BAE Systems Plc, Finmeccanica SpA and European Aeronautic, Defence & Space Co., flew its first mission with Britain’s Royal Air Force on March 21, and 10 of the planes are now stationed in Italy, Eurofighter spokesman Marco Valerio Bonelli said in an interview.
“It never hurts to have the ‘as used in combat’ stamp,” said Francis Tusa, London-based editor of the Defence Analysis newsletter. “It can only do you good.”
Eurofighter competes with jets including Dassault Aviation SA’s Rafale, also patrolling over Libya after flying missions in Afghanistan since 2002, and the yet-to-be-battle-tested Saab AB Gripen. That jet is made in Sweden, where the government said yesterday it might join the conflict.
The three planes are among models competing for a 126-plane order from India, the biggest military deal in play, in competition with the Boeing Co. F/A-18E/F Super Hornet, Lockheed Martin Corp. F-16 Fighting Falcon and the MiG-35. Other fighter contests for which European manufacturers are bidding include Brazil, Japan, Oman, Qatar and Switzerland.
More than 260 Typhoons have so far entered service with the RAF and air forces in partner countries Germany, Italy and Spain, as well as with Austria and Saudi Arabia, the only export customers to date. Working with coalition forces in a battle environment is a key test for the plane, Bonelli said.
“Interoperability is very important for combat aircraft because they transfer data between them, especially in an operation like this,” he said, adding that Typhoons employed in Libya are also accessing data from airborne warning and control planes and unmanned drones often hundreds of miles away.
The Libyan deployment has also demonstrated the model’s “very quick response and very small footprint,” with only 100 technicians accompanying the aircraft, the spokesman said.
Still, the jets are limited to an air-superiority role, Britain’s Ministry of Defence says, meaning they’ll target enemy planes in the air, rather than attack targets on the ground, a capability the RAF planes won’t have until 2018. Bombing has been allocated to Panavia Tornados, designed in the 1970s.
It may take more than a single campaign, particularly one where the Typhoon’s capacities are limited, to excite potential buyers, says Richard Aboulafia, vice president at Teal Group, a Fairfax, Virginia-based consulting company. Britain’s failure to commit fully to a third tranche of Eurofighter orders and an upgraded radar may damp interest from other countries.
“I can’t think of one weapon system in history that was given any kind of boost on the market by one particular conflict,” Aboulafia said. “They need to provide the budget roadmap that guarantees the plane’s long-term appeal as a weapons system.”
There have been no reports yet of the Typhoon encountering Libyan jets, said Douglas Barrie, military aerospace analyst at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London.
Eurofighter said March 8 that London-based BAE, Europe’s biggest defense company, had released a Raytheon Co. Paveway IV laser-guided bomb from a Typhoon test plane, a weapon that Tusa of Defence Analysis said could in theory be deployed in Libya.
“In terms of boosting exports you want Typhoon doing this,” he said. “Having spent the money there’s no reason it can’t.”
The Eurofighter’s operational scope in Libya is narrower than that of Dassault’s Rafale, which flew combat patrols over Afghanistan as early as 2002 and took on a ground-attack role there five years later. The “omnirole” plane has undertaken a variety of Libyan missions from Saint-Dizier airbase in France and the Charles de Gaulle aircraft carrier in the Mediterranean.
“It has been used for air-to-air missions, air-to-ground to hit targets, for reconnaissance and even as a tanker,” said Colonel Thierry Burkhard, a spokesman for the French joint armed forces. “It’s completely multi-functional. You can prepare the plane and choose the mission while you’re flying.”
France has been offering the Rafale for export since 2000 but hasn’t won a single contract after competing unsuccessfully in South Korea, Singapore and Morocco. Libya had even emerged as potential customer after Qaddafi visited France in 2007.
“I have been little short of amazed about how low-beat the French have been on Rafale’s profile in Libya,” said Tusa, a defence analyst for 15 years. “They are desperate to sell it.”
The French air force bombed a Libyan military airbase 150 miles inland last night, Burkhard said at a Paris briefing, while the New York Post said on its website that French fighters shot down a Soko G-2 Galeb. The plane is a reconnaissance and ground-attack model built in the former Yugoslavia until 1983.
While Libya’s air force includes more than 100 Russian MiG jets, “much of it is obsolete or inoperable,” the Pentagon said this month before the no-fly zone was imposed. It also has two Dassault Mirage fighters out of an original fleet of 12.
The Saab Gripen, which first flew in 1988, two years after the Rafale and six years before the Typhoon, has racked up 150,000 flying hours and is a proven fighter, despite never having operated a combat mission, spokesman Lasse Jansson said.
“It’s not something we are asked when we’re out marketing the aircraft,” Jansson said by telephone. “Most potential customers know that Gripen has demonstrated these things.”
While the plane has been exported to South Africa and Thailand, work may run out in 2012 and an upgrade isn’t due to join Sweden’s air force until at least 2017. Sweden would make entry into the Libyan conflict contingent on a clearer chain of command, Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt said yesterday.
U.S. fighter aircraft operating in Libya include the F-16 and Boeing’s F-15E Strike Eagle, one of which crashed on March 21 after what the Pentagon said was “an equipment malfunction.”
Coalition leaders say they’ve already crippled Qaddafi’s air force and are now concentrating on his army. The conflict, which began in February in the eastern city of Benghazi, is the bloodiest in a series of uprisings that have spread across the Middle East and ousted the leaders of Egypt and Tunisia.