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UK faces decision on future strike-aircraft partner

Douglas Barrie/LONDON

The UK will have to decide by the end of the feasibility study into its strike-aircraft requirement whether to link with emerging European or US collaborative projects. The study is due to be completed in 1999.

Funding for the study was expected to have been cleared by the UK Government's Equipment Approval Committee in September. Treasury scrutiny is understood to have delayed this, however, although a go-ahead is still expected shortly.

Sources close to the Royal Air Force's Future Offensive Aircraft (FOA) programme indicate that, while the project will need to be a joint effort, a transatlantic partnership embracing the USA, UK and other European states is unlikely.

Instead, the UK will probably have to make a decision between US and European partners for its Panavia Tornado replacement. The FOA is projected to enter service in around 2015.

While industry sources suggest that a European programme is viewed as the more "politically desirable", an emerging US requirement is giving the RAF a serious second option. The US Air Force has begun to explore a Replacement Interdictor Aircraft (RIA) which will eventually succeed the Lockheed F-117 and McDonnell Douglas F-15E .

Potential European partners include Germany, which, on paper at least, will also require a Tornado replacement, and France. Some within British Aerospace take a jaundiced view of another collaborative project in Europe because of perceived difficulties caused by Germany within the Eurofighter programme. The French air force has yet to acknowledge publicly its need for a dedicated strike aircraft to complement the Dassault Rafale.

Lockheed Martin has already briefed the UK Ministry of Defence on its studies into an aircraft meeting an RIA-type role. The design is understood to be at the "top end" of the RAF's likely FOA requirement. The UK/US Joint Strike Fighter programme has been backed in some quarters as a possible contender for the FOA, although the RAF believes that the aircraft will have to fall substantially short on range needed to meet the requirement.

The FOA feasibility study, when it gets under way, will look at both crewed and uncrewed aircraft in meeting Air Staff Target 425 for a Tornado replacement. Although the feasibility study will examine a variety of aircraft, the RAF's preferred solution remains a two-crew twin-engined aircraft, perhaps with the ability to develop uncrewed versions of the same design later in its life-cycle.

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