Eurofighter Saga

The Neverending Scandal-Ridden Tale of Corruption and Conflicts of Interest -- to Fill a Need, Critics Say, Austria doesn’t have.

News | Colin Leigh Peters | June 2007

Even the most recent arrival in Vienna will be hard pressed to have missed the Eurofighter. Rarely a day passes without some new headline in the Austrian dailies or on the Zeit im Bild TV news.

The Eurofighter EF-2000, or the Typhoon (its NATO name) is a twin-engine, multi-role, ‘canard-delta’ strike fighter jet, a triangular shaped airframe reminiscent of a flying duck (hence canard).

Designed and built by a four-nation consortium of the United Kingdom, Germany, Spain and Italy, the project developed from the ashes of the Future European Fighter Programme of several European countries who thought Europe needed a new breed of fighter jet. Founded in June 1986, Eurofighter GmbH’s first-run aircraft took off in 1994 – after  serious disagreements over the work share, design and name, with tensions at times so high, some thought Germany would withdraw altogether.

However, the differences were eventually settled, and in 1999 the Eurofighter Consortium went in search of buyers outside of the four participating nations. Up to that point, the UK had purchased 232 aircraft, Germany 180, Italy 121 and Spain 127. An early deal with Greece for the purchase of 60 planes has since been cancelled, and Saudi Arabia announced last year that it would buying 72. The only other customer so far has been Austria, the Schüssel government announcing on the Jun. 2, 2002 its intention to buy 18 aircraft.

Ever since the announcement, the topic has been surrounded by controversy. Critics have slammed the way the deal was made, the reasoning, the huge production problems, and the ultimate value to the taxpayers.

The Austrian decision to buy the Eurofighter was certainly a surprise. In fact it even caught the majority of the Austrian Ministry of Defence off guard. It was not the decision itself – the 1960’s-age Drakens used by the Austrian airforce needed replacing – but the decision, made so quickly,  to opt for the most expensive offer on the table. The new centre-right government seemed bent on changing the long-standing distaste for defence of decades of socialist governments.

The deal was to cost approximately €2 billion (in comparison, the cheapest offer, for the F-16, at approximately €700 million), and the first four planes were to be delivered in 2005.

Then nature stepped,  when large scale flooding later that summer of 2002 left extensive – and expensive – damage across Austria.

But trouble was already brewing behind the scenes a mere week after the deal was announced back in July, as the public prosecutor found evidence of cash kickbacks to the head of the Austrian air force, Maj. Gen. Erich Wolf. It emerged that a lobbyist for the manufacturer had paid €87,600 to a company set up by Wolf and controlled by his wife.

However, flooding and corruption aside, fighter jet acquisition is generally unpopular in Austria, a constitutionally neutral country since World War II. The acquisition of the Drakens had also been a controversial move, and debate over the Eurofighter continued up to and after the actual signing of the contract in July 2003.

Still two years later, in 2005, the then opposition leader Alfred Güsenbauer insisted on a debate in parliament, as well as the setting up of a committee of inquiry to discuss its merits. It was becoming clear that the total cost could reach €6 billion, a record single expenditure for the Republic, and the opposition were intent on reducing the price substantially or scrapping the idea altogether.

Adding fuel to the fire were the production problems. The original delivery date of the second quarter of 2005 had been pushed back to 2007, and more recently, it has emerged that Austria might not be receiving exactly that which it paid for.

According to the deal, Austria had agreed to buy 18 Tranche 2 planes, which are second generation Eurofighters. However, it seems they may be receiving the Tranche 1 model, at least to start with. The idea of being handed used German machines doesn’t seem to fit the price tag.

In the run up to last autumn’s general elections, the SPÖ made the Eurofighter a central issue in their campaign: If the price could not be lowered, then the deal would be binned. Portions of the original contract had already been published in the press, special hearings had been held by the Federal Council, and accusations of an unfair and ‘scandalous’ deal had been thrown at the incumbent government. The Eurofighter had reached an all-time low in popularity, with polls showing 71 per cent of Austrians in favour of a withdrawal from the deal, despite the large financial consequences.

A mere two weeks after the elections of Oct. 1, 2006, the SPÖ floor leader Josef Cap again attacked the Eurofighter in an interview with Der Standard, calling for a committee of inquiry to "clarify the political responsibility for the senseless procurement of this unbelievably expensive war machine."

Austria does not "need the Eurofighter," he said. "It is not an ideological, but a financial issue. I’ve got nothing against these planes as such. But they cost an awful lot of money."

The committee set to work at the end of October 2006, and is still in session today. The recent corruption allegations against Wolf (suspended from duty last month), along with further evidence suggesting links of certain FPÖ politicians to other cases of corruption, and the large sections of the contract rendered illegible by black marker pen have all added to the political infighting which some believe threatens the very stability of the Grand Coalition.

Norbert Darabos, the Minister of Defence currently negotiating with Eurofighter GmbH to reduce the price, had already threatened to declare the contract null and void. However, with one plane already airborne, one about to be rolled out, and four more in the final stages of completion, it seems that the deal may already be, as described by Defense Industry Daily, a fait accompli.

There may be some very expensive ducks heading south for winter.

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