Political hell dragging over the Tranche 2 Eurofighter contract has come home to roost with the Typhoon's ejection from Asian contest

The decision to buy a fighter, and the choice of fighter to buy, is rarely a purely technical or operational matter. The justification for operating any combat aircraft is almost always political, whether it is to signal a country's willingness to defend its own sovereignty or its preparedness to threaten that of another country. The procurement process for something as highly potent as a modern strike fighter is therefore highly political.

Singapore, unexpectedly, has narrowed its search for a next-generation fighter from three contenders to two, rejecting the Eurofighter Typhoon after deciding the four-nation consortium could not meet its schedule for delivery of a multi-role aircraft. That leaves the Boeing F-15T and Dassault Rafale.

Singapore's arms procurement procedures are widely regarded as among the most rigorous and fair anywhere, and it is almost impossible to imagine that direct political action could have had any influence on the decision to narrow the shortlist to two fighters. But it is quite conceivable that political inaction on the part of the four European governments behind the Typhoon could have been a factor.

Announcing the decision to reject the BAE Systems-led Typhoon bid, Singapore gave as its reason the inability of Eurofighter to deliver an aircraft meeting its requirements by the end of 2008. The reason the consortium could not meet that deadline is the lengthy delay in reaching a contractual agreement with the four partner nations on production of the Tranche 2 multi-role Typhoon – the aircraft that would have met Singapore's requirements – a deal that was finally signed in December.

Signed months later than industry had hoped for, the €13 billion, 236-aircraft Tranche 2 contract was seen at the time as securing the future of the Typhoon programme and, after bruising negotiations, was trumpeted by the governments as a good deal for their taxpayers. But premature rejection by an influential customer like Singapore has to call both of those claims into question.

With 620 aircraft planned for the air forces of Germany, Italy, Spain and UK, the basic Eurofighter programme would appear to have ample critical mass, but more than once during the protracted negotiations leading up to award of the Tranche 2 contract, more than veiled threats were made about whether the partner nations need that number of aircraft. There is a prospect that the basic programme could end with Tranche 2, after less than two-thirds of the planned aircraft have been produced.

Back in the beginnings of the programme, the exportability of the Eurofighter was a factor in the aircraft surviving the Cold War's end. But, years later, there is only one export sale – 18 aircraft to Austria – the Greek government having overturned the pre-Olympics decision of a previous administration to order 60 Typhoons. There are other competitions out there to be won, including in Japan and potentially India, but the embarrassing elimination from the Singapore contest could hurt Typhoon's prospects.

In dragging their heels on Tranche 2 the four governments were more interested in gaining near-term value for money than in securing the long-term future of the Eurofighter. That narrow focus is now coming home to roost, and raising questions about the partner nations' commitment to exporting the Typhoon.

Because the decision to procure and deploy a fighter force is ultimately political, it is usual that the governments of the selling nations get involved in backing their industry's bid. Insiders say the governments of the Eurofighter nations were conspicuous by their absence in the Singapore contest, while France and the USA fielded senior government officials.

This is a surprise, as BAE was leading the Singapore Typhoon bid and has in the past been able to count on UK government support for its sales efforts. Backed by the UK government, BAE secured the only export sale of the Eurofighter's predecessor, the three-nation Panavia Tornado, to Saudi Arabia, and the company has led in Typhoon marketing.

An apparent lack of campaigning on behalf of the Typhoon by the one Eurofighter partner nation with a track record of export activism sends a worrying signal. The increasing Europeanisation of industry, decision-making and procurement raises the question of who will champion European defence products on the world market – all the nations, or none? Boeing's F-15 and Dassault's Rafale are each the proud product of one aerospace nation. And it shows.

Source: Flight International