Typhoon's Libya debut seen as sales boost

March 25, 2011 at 3:23 PM
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CAIRO, March 25 (UPI) -- The Eurofighter Typhoon has flown its first combat missions over Libya as part of Operation Odyssey Dawn, giving a boost to its European makers' drive to sell the $120 million, delta-winged fighter in big-ticket strike jet deals in Japan and India.

"It never hurts to have the 'as used in combat' stamp," said Francis Tusa, editor of the Defense Analysis newsletter.

The Typhoons from the British air force flew their first missions Monday, the third day of Operation Odyssey Dawn, as part of the 906 Expeditionary Air Wing based at Gioia Del Colle in Italy.

The Eurofighter consortium consists of Britain's BAE Systems, Europe's largest defense company, Finmeccanica of Italy and the European Aeronautic, Defense and Space Co.

The Typhoon may be in action but it remains questionable just how much its involvement in Odyssey Dawn will bolster its sales prospects.

So far the twin-engine, supersonic jets have flown five-hour patrols in the U.N.-mandated no-fly zone over Libya, though only in the air-superiority role for which it was designed.

But aerial dogfights with Moammar Gadhafi's outnumbered air force are unlikely since allied commanders say the Libyan air force has been pretty much crippled already.

So the Typhoon won't be able to show off its paces by downing Libya's Russian-built MiGs and Sukhois or French-built Mirages.

It's the ground-attack jets like British Tornados, U.S. F-16s and F/A18s, covered by the Typhoons, that are racking up the missions by hitting Gadhafi's air-defense missile sites, radars and ground forces.

The Typhoon won't have ground-attack capability until 2018.

The fighter was designed in the 1970s to combat Soviet fighters but since the collapse of communism in the late 1980s there hasn't been much call for air superiority fighters.

Indeed, it's been criticized as little more than a relic of the Cold War and pretty much outdated as soon as it went into service with the British air force.

The Typhoon is also in service with Germany's Luftwaffe and the air forces of Spain, Italy, Austria and Saudi Arabia.

But Tusa says that in theory the Typhoon could be armed with precision-guided munitions designed to take out hardened ground targets like bunkers and command centers.

"In terms of boosting exports, you want Typhoon doing this," he said. "Having spent the money there's no reason it can't."

Riyadh, which has traditionally bought British as well as U.S. aircraft, confirmed in September 2007 that it had signed a $7.17 billion contract for 72 Typhoons, 48 of which would be built in the kingdom.

The first 24 of the European-built jets were diverted from the British air force after it decided to trim its order for Eurofighters because of defense budget cutbacks.

The Saudis have been reported to be considering an additional 24 Eurofighters. But their plans to buy 84 Boeing F-15S fighters as part of a massive $60 billion arms deal with Washington could mean the Typhoon scheme will be dropped.

Meantime, the Eurofighter is one of several advanced jets in a contest to supply the Indian air force with 126 multirole combat aircraft in a contract worth in excess of $10.5 billion.

The other contenders are the Boeing F/A-18N, the Rafale built by Dassault Aviation of France, Lockheed Martin's F-16IN Fighting Falcon, Saab of Sweden's Jas 39 Gripen NG/IN and Mikoyan's MiG-35 from Russia.

The Typhoon is also involved in a contest for 40-50 new fighter aircraft for Japan.

Due to Tokyo's traditional defense ties to the United States, Lockheed Martin's F-35 Lightning II stealth fighter and Boeing's F/A-18E/F Super Hornet are considered top contenders.

The F-35 program has been hit by delays and cost overruns that could make it less attractive.

The consortium that builds the Eurofighter has also been aided by the U.S. decision not to sell Japan the jet it really wanted -- the now-abandoned F-22 Raptor -- to maintain the secrecy of its advanced technologies.

"Eurofighter has offered Tokyo lots of sweeteners, including industrial participation," said Michael Auslin of the American Enterprise Institute in Washington.

"If the U.S. can't come up with something equally attractive, it will be difficult for Tokyo to choose a less-beneficial deal."

The Persian Gulf emirate of Qatar has been evaluating the Eurofighter for an order for 24-36 fighters. Contenders include the F-35, F/A-18, F-15 Eagle and Dassault's Rafale.

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