If you need a new piece of military equipment, there are four major ways to acquire it: to buy something which satisfies most of your requirements off somebody else's shelf; to buy something off somebody else's shelf and modify it for your own purposes; to develop it entirely yourself; or to develop it in partnership with other like-minded countries. The current evidence tends to suggest that, unless you are the USA, you're much better off with the first option.

The advantage with the first solution is that it is undoubtedly the cheapest and most trouble-free. The disadvantages are that the local industry derives little benefit, even if offsets are negotiated, and the armed services don't necessarily get what they actually wanted.

The advantages with the second are that local industry gets a great deal more, much more meaningful work, and the services (hopefully) get a machine better-tailored to their needs. The disadvantage is that (almost without exception) the cost rises out of all proportion to the advantages gained.

The advantages with the third option are that (theoretically) you get exactly what you wanted, and your local industry gets a great deal of valuable work. The disadvantages are that what you wanted is probably not what anybody else wanted (so your export prospects are poor), and that (especially if your requirement is small) the cost is very high.

The advantages of the fourth option are the same as for Option Three; the disadvantages can be just about any from the previous three, plus the near-inevitability of internecine squabbles.

The latest evidence that Option 2 is not an attractive idea comes from Japan's FS-X programme. After eight years' hard work, Japan has the first prototype of an aircraft which is very little better (and in some aspects like power/weight ratio, demonstrably worse) than the aircraft on which it was based - the Lockheed (n‚e General Dynamics) F-16. At the current rate of progress, this aircraft will enter service in 1999 - more than 20 years after its design parent entered service - at a unit cost some four times greater than that of the F-16. For all the work which has flowed into Japanese aerospace companies through this project, the net benefit to the Japanese economy must be minimal.

Evidence that Option 3 remains an unattractive option comes - as it has done on so many previous occasions - from the UK, with the troubles surrounding the Phoenix unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV). The Phoenix programme dates back some 15 years, and is now running some five years late. At the moment, the UK Ministry of Defence is not even convinced that the Phoenix will ever work properly, and is conducting a review which (after nearly £250 million has been spent) could conceivably result in the project's cancellation. Even if it does not (and for the good of the British industry and taxpayer alike, the hope must be that it does not), a great deal of harm to various reputations and credibilities has already been done.

The evidence against Option Four continues to come from Germany, where yet more reviews of the Eurofighter programme cast uncertainty over it, for reasons far more to do with internal German politics than with engineering or military issues. Just recently, scarce time and money have been wasted on evaluating an alternative flight-control system for which there was no apparent requirement, other than one to sustain a German/US research programme.

On the evidence, it would seem that somebody else's shelf remains the only really attractive source for new military equipment. The trouble is: whose shelf? The answer at the moment is almost inevitably "The USA's", but it need not be. The skills to design, develop and build such equipment exist in other places - most notably in Europe. What does not exist is the ability or willingness amongst the customers to agree a common specification and then select a single source for it, instead of always wanting to share in every project. What harms the Europeans and others is that they seemingly cannot divorce the concepts of producer and customer. There are enough projects around to allow most large contractors or industry groups a project leadership each. Each project so organised would not only offer the prospect of real return to the few companies involved, but a much lower cost to all the customers.

Source: Flight International