Comment Some of the Royal Air Force's new Eurofighter Typhoon jets have today been announced as capable of delivering weapons against ground targets, in addition to their initial role of air-to-air combat.
This has been reported as meaning that the already horrifyingly expensive, long-delayed planes are "fully combat ready". However, even the Eurofighter's friends within the defence community don't deny that the RAF - far from finally being satisfied with the plane at long last - wants to spend billions more in coming years on further upgrades to the Eurofighter.
The "fully combat ready" howler comes from the BBC. Beeb writers also quoted the head of the RAF, Air Chief Marshal Sir Clive Loader, who said:
"This latest capability upgrade gives the Royal Air Force the most operationally flexible aircraft it has ever had."
The capability upgrades now completed and tested are principally the modification of some UK Eurofighters to carry bombs and the fitting of an Israeli-made targeting pod, the Litening III.
Modern smartbombs such as the RAF's Enhanced Paveways can be dropped using only their onboard satnav guidance, but this reduces their accuracy and it is preferable to shine a laser dot on the target for them to home in on. The Litening pod can shine such a dot, and has high-powered infrared and daylight cameras so that Eurofighter pilots high up and far off can see what they're aiming at. Pod video can also be downlinked to forward air controllers on the ground, allowing them to confirm that the laser designator is in fact pointed where it should be - a serious issue when dropping 500 or 1000 lb bombs which cause widespread destruction.
The RAF already had a British-made targeting pod, supposedly able to do all of this, known as TIALD. However, TIALD seems not to be much good. It was said to have performed embarrassingly poorly in the Iraq invasion of 2003, and the RAF seem much more pleased with the Litening.
With a Litening pod and a load of smartbombs, a Eurofighter can now drop bombs to the direction of ground troops or go after known ground targets on its own, including quite tough bunkers and the like, if the smartbombs are of a suitable type. And the Eurofighter is going to be more than adequate at air-to-air combat, the mission it was actually designed for.
So why does the MoD describe the new air-to-ground kit as an "austere" capability? What more could the RAF want? It is a fact that they want a lot more upgrades. The MoD is in closed-door negotiations at present regarding the third tranche of Eurofighters, not yet ordered. Reports indicate that the cost to the UK of its final 232-jet fleet of Eurofighters might soon balloon from £20bn - the estimate in recent years - to £25bn+, driven by enhancements to the Tranche III aircraft.
(Incidentally, the RAF has plans to use only 140-odd Eurofighters. A large number of the Tranche I and II jets will likely be permanently mothballed - essentially thrown away - as happened in the late '80s with the Tornado F3. Cost to the taxpayer per Eurofighter actually used could beat £180m, more than an American F-22 Raptor stealth ultrafighter.)
Some of the desired enhancements make sense - it seems that more engine power for the Eurofighter is being sought, allowing it to lift heavy air-to-ground payloads even from "hot and high" airbases like those in Afghanistan. Many of the desired bells and whistles are a lot more arguable, though. It seems a sure bet that the RAF will want to kit out its jets with standoff weapons like the Storm Shadow air-launched cruise missile, able to strike a couple of hundred miles into heavily defended airspace without risking jets and pilots.