From Typhoon to Tempest

Wednesday 15 February 2023

From Typhoon to Tempest

What the history of Eurofighter tells us about the Global Combat Air Programme

Can we learn from the past to better plan the future? Can the European experience of developing fighter aircraft tell us anything about how next generation platforms might proceed? Do early decisions about programme structure matter in the long term? The answer to all three is a clear ‘yes’. Last month, Apache iX’s Principal Strategic Analyst, Matt Warren, presented on the development of the Eurofighter fighter aircraft programme to the International Security Industry Council of Japan. As a long, complex, multinational defence collaboration, Eurofighter provides rich lessons for its successor programme, the Global Combat Air Programme. Drawing from Matt’s presentation and the subsequent discussion, this article will outline why we must understand and account for Eurofighter’s programme structure and the tensions that it revealed between politics, military need, and economics when thinking about the shape, emphasis, and direction of the next generation fighter programme.

Learning from History

Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.

So said Georges Santayana in 1905, long before the fighter aircraft and many of the other advances in modern warfare had been made. The announcement in December of the Global Combat Air Programme (GCAP), a collaboration between Britain, Italy, and Japan, looks to the future of fighter aircraft and the sophisticated combat air ecosystem it will operate within. Aiming to provide a successor to the Eurofighter Typhoon, the programme has the benefit of being able to look to the past, drawing upon Europe’s experiences from Eurofighter and its predecessors like Tornado.

The Eurofighter consortium was founded in 1986. Its purpose was to develop and manufacture a new European fighter aircraft. Over the past four decades, the Eurofighter Typhoon has gone from a paper requirement to a highly capable, combat proven multirole fighter aircraft and the backbone of four European air forces. As a complex, multinational defence collaboration, Eurofighter has encountered its share of successes, challenges, and delays. Some of these have been external and unpredictable. Some have resulted from the chosen programme structure.

We can’t do much about the former so let’s consider the implications of the latter – how the structure of the Eurofighter consortium has shaped how it has operated, where it has succeeded and failed, and what this might mean for GCAP. Two major implications will be discussed. First, the operating model of joint management organisations used by Eurofighter, a reaction to the long and often turbulent history of European fighter aircraft collaboration. This model brought programme stability but created collective action problems. Second, the implications of Eurofighter’s workshare arrangements which allocated development and production to the partners. These sought to satisfy domestic politics, military need, and economic efficiency but in favouring the former, workshare arrangements created numerous inefficiencies, delays, and tensions, with long-term consequences.

Together We Stand, Divided We Fall

Before the Typhoon and Tornado programmes, collaborative fighter aircraft development in Europe had proven tricky. Two projects had ultimately failed. First, the Anglo-French Variable Geometry aircraft of the 1960s was cancelled after only two years and before a single aircraft was built. The successor Jaguar programme, despite producing aircraft for Britain, France and export customers, was fatally undermined by opposition from parts of French industry. Three reasons lay at the heart of these failures: differences over aircraft requirements, disagreements over who would lead the programmes, and the ease with which a nation could walk away. Consequently, how to solve these problems of collaboration became paramount for the next attempt at a fighter aircraft programme.

The Tornado programme fixed all three issues. It did so by creating two multinational management organisations – NAMMA to represent the national partners (Britain, Italy, and West Germany), and Panavia to bring together national industries. NAMMA developed and set the aircraft’s requirements collectively. Panavia ensured equality amongst partner industries, replacing the role of prime contractor, and determined workshares. Both structures imposed high barriers to exiting the collaboration, binding the partners together. The result was a capable production aircraft and an enduring programme partnership. Typhoon followed this model, establishing the equivalent structures of NETMA (consisting of Britain, Italy, Germany and Spain) and Eurofighter GmbH.

The basic problems of multinational fighter aircraft collaboration were solved. But new problems resulted from the solutions. Programme complexity combined with the challenges of ‘collective action’ emerged. How do multiple nations, companies, supply chains and stakeholders with different cultures, needs, and demands work together and agree plans, processes, and direction? With difficulty. The costs of collective action were measured in long delays and significant cost overruns and driven by transactions between multiple countries, companies, and supply chains, difficulty in reaching unanimity for development changes, and the growth of formal decision-making structures. These were a feature of Tornado and became more acute on the larger, more complex Typhoon programme. They didn’t stop either from being successful in the long-run, but they certainly contributed to national criticisms, export failures, and to delaying new capabilities from being developed.

The Costs of Doing Business

Eurofighter’s workshare arrangements were also problematic. The underlying principle of ‘fair return’ determined each partner’s share of the programme. Then the details of what this meant for each nation’s industry were negotiated. This had long-term implications and took years to decide, delaying the programme’s production phase well into the 1990s. The principle of fair return allocated the share of production each nation was entitled to, based on the initial number of aircraft each nation was prepared to buy. Britain had committed to taking the highest number of aircraft and gained the largest workshare. When commitments changed – as they did for all four partners – workshare didn’t.

Workshare based on fair return shows the intensely political nature of multinational fighter aircraft programmes. The rationale for Eurofighter is ostensibly economic – delivering a military need through an efficient collaboration that reduces the development costs of each partner, leverages national industrial and technological advantages for the benefit of the programme, and making possible collectively a capability too expensive or complex to be feasible for each partner to pursue alone. But the potential for economic efficiency through comparative advantage is easily overridden by domestic political needs. These demand the creation of large numbers of skilled jobs, the transfer of technology, the use of specific subcontractors, and the establishment of multiple final assembly lines. Many of the expected benefits of collaboration are reduced or even disappear. This was the case for Eurofighter.

What Does It All Mean? From Typhoon to Tempest…

Eurofighter’s programme structure ensured its long-term survival but caused huge cost and schedule overruns. Its workshare arrangements secured the backing of the partner nations and created jobs, but did so at a high price that undermined the very reason for collaborating in the first place. So, what do these two features of Eurofighter mean for its successor programme?

First, there is a question of whether GCAP will follow the Eurofighter governance structure and its multinational management organisations. Such a route would mitigate the fundamental challenges of collaboration amongst equal partners and benefit from the knowledge and lessons of both Tornado and Typhoon. But, as we have seen, such organisations create problems of their own and GCAP is more ambitious and more complex that Eurofighter. Alternative routes, such as the F-35 Joint Program Office model, may be more appropriate if there is an intention to expand the GCAP to include additional nations for some or all elements. Either way, with the management structure of fighter aircraft programmes having far-reaching, long-term effects, it is vital that detailed analysis of costs, benefits, dependencies, options and consequences is undertaken for GCAP.

Second, GCAP has an opportunity to overcome the collective action problems of Eurofighter through a combination of technology, scale, and the established industrial base.

  • Technology, and specifically the digital space, will be a core element of GCAP. It will permit the connection of designers, engineers, project managers, software developers and many other skills from the three partners in a way simply not possible during the development of Typhoon in the 1980s and 1990s.
  • The scale of GCAP will also help. GCAP is a much broader program than Eurofighter. Development of its different elements – a new fighter aircraft, new propulsion, an uncrewed aircraft, combat cloud, weapons, and sensors – affords the possibility of an equitable, and logical, balance of contributions by partner industries. This can leverage strengths, improve development times, and reduce the inefficiencies of duplication.
  • Finally, when the Eurofighter partners began the development of Typhoon they had widely varying technological and industrial capabilities. This is not the case for GCAP. There is broad technological and industrial equivalency between Britain, Italy, and Japan. This should reduce the demands of developing subcontractor capabilities and creating new facilities, which add time and cost.

Third, domestic politics will play a significant role in deciding workshare. This is unavoidable. GCAP can at least proceed in the knowledge of Eurofighter’s experience, with the partners accepting the political impetus to maximise jobs, security, and sovereignty will add cost and reduce economic efficiency. The question is the extent to which this impacts military need. The GCAP partners face substantial and long-term security challenges from state adversaries in Europe and in East Asia. They must also be able to replace increasingly well-used current generation fighter aircraft in the next decade. Protracted negotiations over workshare would undermine the national security of Britain, Italy and Japan. It is vital that this does not happen, and that we look back and learn from history.

Want to Know More?

Matt’s presentation on this subject at the International Security Industry Council of Japan’s ‘Power of Partnerships: Multinational Co-Development & Manufacturing’ webinar can be found here. He’ll also be producing some more commentary on next generation fighter aircraft programmes in the coming months. To begin a conversation about how the expertise in Apache iX’s Strategic & Analytical Services team could enhance your understanding of the contemporary defence environment, contact Matt or Liv through our Contact page.