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European Combat Aircraft [ECA]

The drive for affordability must start right at the beginning of the life-cycle, at the requirements stage. The requirements should be set before the point of diminishing return, which may not be too far from what is ultimately achievable on available technology, but will cost much less. Since the military planner may not be aware of the small details of the cost vs. capability curve, he should specify requirements as a range of values, and give priorities or incentives where he sees the greatest operational benefit. The most critical stage to affordability occurs long before major hardware has been built, tested or flown, at the detailed design stage, before the final configuration is frozen.

In the late 1970s, British, French, German, and Italian companies initiated discussions aimed at collaboratively designing, developing, and producing Europe's next generation fighter-attack aircraft. In 1979 BAe and Messerschmitt-Bolkow-Blohm (MBB) combined their national design efforts and presented their governments with a joint proposal for a European Combat Fighter (ECF) design. Dassault joined the program in 1980, merging its Avion de Combat Experimental (ACX) proposal with the Anglo-German ECF, resulting in the slightly modified trinational European Combat Aircraft (ECA) design.

In the late 1970s, work had commenced in the UK on the drafting of an air staff target for a Harrier/Jaguar replacement. The Harrier requirement became ASR 409, in other words Harrier GR5, and AST 403 proceeded as the Jaguar replacement alone. It proved impossible to reconcile the characteristics of such diverse designs in one aircraft, so it was decided to deal with them separately.

By 1981 a decision on a replacement for the Jaguar aircraft had been awaited for four or five years. The aircraft was originally the AST403 / AST 403 before becoming the European combat aircraft. By mid-1981 it was the Light Combat Aircraft. It had been planned to develop against Air Staff target No. 403 a new combat aircraft to replace the Jaguar in the early 1990s. To this end the aerospace industries of the United Kingdom, France and Germany, as well as the Air Forces and Government officials of the three countries, had worked together over several years on the possible collaborative development of a European Combat Aircraft. The UK Government suspended support in 1981 on the grounds that no commonality could be found among the respective air forces and so there was no foreseeable collaborative agreement.

The Jaguar replacement was known in the UK as Air Staff Target 403 or AST 403, and it was latter commonly known as the European Combat Aircraft. Close support cannot be all-weather, since pilots must be able to see their targets which normally would probably be mobile tanks—so as to be able to hit them. However, these capabilities were being improved by extending the operating envelope of the aircraft by forward-looking infra-red, or FLIR for short, and by low light level television, a form of image intensifier.

There were political and economic desires to co-operate with France and Germany on the European combat aircraft. Collaboration was essential, since the UK could not afford to go it alone. Technology must be harnessed to provide a superior aircraft, and at the same time it must also be cheap. It is perhaps an unfortunate fact that the cost of technology usually outstrips inflation.

The Germans were even more demanding about the qualities of this new airplane, while the British thought that somehow they must be persuaded to accept perhaps a slightly less than ideal aircraft, in the same way as the RAF was prepared to do so. But the UK needed at least 200 of these aircraft, and neither the British nor the Germans could afford to trade off quantity for quality. The Soviets' tactical aircraft were on a par with the Jaguar and the Phantom. So the next generation of RAF aircraft must be electronically and tactically superior, but at the same time cheap enough to replace existing aircraft one for one.

By June 1980 British Aerospace, Marcel Dassault of France and MBB of West Germany had agreed a joint program of 700 aircraft that could lead to the development of the European Combat Aircraft by the 1990s. The aircraft could be flying in experimental form in 1982. But no engine had been chosen for the aircraft and the three Governments concerned had problems in accepting the exact definition of the aircraft.

In 1981 the UK concluded that it was unable to afford any direct and early replacement for the Jaguar force in Germany and at home. The decision to that effect was published in June 1981 in the White Paper on the defence program, which went on to say that the UK was, however, continuing work and discussion with potential partners on future combat aircraft and that possibilities included both advanced VSTOL and Tornado-related developments. The White Paper also made the point that the would have particular regard to collaborative opportunities and to export markets, as well as to the long-term capability of the British aircraft industry. In accordance with the White Paper decision, no further Government-funded studies on the Jaguar replacement had been authorised.

Mark A. Lorell at RAND noted in 1989 that "Three major problems soon arose that stalled the program. The most important issue involved design leadership and division of responsibility; the French insisted on the need for a clear project leader to avoid rule by committee, with Dassault being the ideal choice, 10 while the others were willing to accept a more egalitarian program structure. The question of design leadership directly affected the second problem area: the aircraft's basic empty weight. Primarily for cost considerations, to facilitate foreign sales, and to meet French Navy requirements for a carrier based fighter, the French preferred a much lighter aircraft than the heavy long-range interceptor envisioned by the RAF. The third problem involved the engine and was also related to questions of size and weight. The Tornado partners, 11 spearheaded by the British, pushed for the adoption of a derivative of the Tornado RB-199 turbofan engine, whose development Rolls-Royce had dominated. The French preferred a U.S. interim engine for the prototypes, followed by their own SNECMA M88 engine for production models.... with no government funding forthcoming, the ECA project effectively collapsed in 1981."

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Page last modified: 18-05-2013 18:56:08 ZULU