John Parry/MADRID

Andrzej Jeziorski/MUNICH

SPAIN IS CONSIDERING withdrawing from the Eurofighter programme just as the UK and Germany appear to be moving closer to an agreement on the controversial problem of work-share.

The Spanish defence ministry confirms: "There is no decision taken yet, but withdrawal from the Eurofighter programme is under consideration."

The statement, accompanied by Spanish press reports, caught the UK, German and Italian partners in the programme by surprise as the countries' state secretaries, including the Spanish Secretary of State for Defence, Juan Ramon Garcia, gathered for a meeting in Rome on 16 November to monitor progress in the development programme.

The cash-strapped Spanish say a decision could be made after the meeting "...based on what the other members say".

A report in the Spanish newspaper El Mundo suggests that Spain is waiting for Germany to take the first step in withdrawing from the Eurofighter programme, which is over-budget and suffering ever-worsening delays, although any suggestion of a German withdrawal is categorically dismissed by German defence officials.

If Spain were to withdraw alone, it would be liable for a Ptas150 billion ($120 million) penalty, and would cause massive disruption to the programme. Contrary to any suggestions of wavering German commitment to the Eurofighter, sources close to the programme say that the country is considering increasing its production off-take from the current 140 aircraft as a way of breaking the impasse on production work-share.

Under the terms of the original programme, production work-share was to be proportional to aircraft numbers procured. An off-take of 140 aircraft in principle entitles Germany to only 23% of the work-share, rather than the 30% for which it is fighting, based on its development spending.

The German defence ministry admits that an increase in the number of aircraft it buys "...might be an option" in the search for a solution. John Weston, managing director of British Aerospace Military Aircraft, speaking at the Dubai air show said: "While work-share is an issue, we are going to get to a solution before 1996." Weston declines to discuss any increase in German off-take.

German Eurofighter industrial partner Daimler-Benz Aerospace (DASA) has greeted suggestions of a Spanish withdrawal with scepticism, expressing greater concern over an apparently unsolicited offer from Lockheed to sell F-22 fighters to the UK.

"This is a real threat," says DASA. Lockheed is believed to have offered the UK a package starting with leased F-16s as a stopgap, to be followed by the sale of F-22s, with slightly downgraded avionics, leaving room for the purchase of fewer than 100 Eurofighters for operations with the Royal Air Force.

Although the UK MoD has dismissed any suggestions that it will buy the US aircraft, the issue has stirred doubts about British commitment to the Eurofighter.

DASA says that the UK would be "totally crazy" to take up such an offer, buying aircraft which are 60% more expensive than the Eurofighter - but only 10% to 20% more capable - and seriously damaging the UK industry.

Source: Flight International