Analysis Reports indicate that British officials have been in talks with several far-flung nations with a view to offloading scores of enormously expensive Eurofighter jets which the MoD has ordered but cannot pay for - or even use.
The Financial Times this morning says that unnamed "defence officials have confirmed" that the UK has held discussions with Saudi Arabia, India and Japan about reselling surplus Eurofighter Typhoon combat jets. The MoD is currently taking delivery of 144 planes under the first two tranches of the multinational Eurofighter pact. This is already enough and then some for the RAF's seven planned fighting Typhoon squadrons.
However, Blighty is committed to taking a further 88 jets under Eurofighter Tranche 3. It is an open secret that if Tranche 3 is delivered to the RAF, up to a hundred British Typhoons will never fly, sitting in storage hangars for decades before being scrapped - as happened from the mid-1980s onward with the Eurofighter's predecessor, the comical Tornado F3 fighter.
This sort of outrageous wastefulness looks even worse nowadays, with British troops fighting and dying in two combat theatres overseas, hamstrung by the lack of comparatively cheap helicopters, light armour and transport aircraft. And yet it has been set to happen all over again, for at least the last ten years, and absolutely nothing has been done about it - until now.
The Tornado F3 was bought in much greater numbers than the RAF wanted supposedly in order to keep alive British jet-fighter manufacturing capability - seen as vital to maintaining UK independence and sovereignty. Sadly this didn't work: the Eurofighter is a collaborative international effort, and nobody any longer pretends that the UK could build a modern fighter alone. Indeed, it turns out that the Eurofighter also contains enough American technology that the US can - if it chooses - veto the plane's export outside Europe.
So why not just cancel Tranche 3? The FT says that the Eurofighter deal was modified in the 1990s - largely to prevent Germany constantly cutting its orders and driving up the unit costs for everyone else. This means that cancellation penalties would cost almost as much as simply taking the planes.
We here on the Reg defence desk have been covering this issue for years now, and it is true that modifications were made following German vacillating. The exact nature of the Eurofighter deal is hard to fathom - negotiations go on constantly, and are typically kept secret on various spurious grounds. However, according to many other analysts, according to the various defence sources we have spoken to, the idea that Eurofighter Tranche 3 is inescapable is not - quite - true.
Even the head of BAE Systems plc, the UK-headquartered arms globocorp which stands to scoop enormous profits from the Eurofighter, has admitted that Tranche 3 can be cancelled - if all the governments involved agree to do so. It's that simple; if the UK, Germany, Spain and Italy agree, Tranche 3 is dead and the UK would save perhaps £3bn. This would see Blighty's 144 Eurofighters come in at around £120m each - plus whatever it costs to sort out their ground-attack capabilities to the RAF's satisfaction (some of the RAF jets can now drop smart bombs, but the flyboys want more - much more).
The cash-strapped MoD could really use that £3bn. Our troops in combat overseas would, perhaps, be quite pleased with us for once, if we sorted that extra cash out for them. By contrast, even if we manage to shift Blighty's surplus jets to somewhere respectable, the MoD won't get £3bn back; you could bank on BAE and local contractors, middlemen etc snaffling most of the cash.
And it's all too likely that the customer government would prove untrustworthy, would sell Europe's (and America's) war-winning tech to anyone who asked for it. There have already been rumblings from the US about an earlier Eurofighter deal with Saudi Arabia.
Perhaps, in fact, the MoD ought to be focusing more on its negotiations in Italy, Germany and Spain - not those in Japan, India and Saudi. ®