New British fighter plane left without a functioning cannon

PUBLISHED : Monday, 16 August, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 16 August, 2004, 12:00am

Britain's Ministry of Defence has been accused of putting pilots' lives in jeopardy after it left the Royal Air Force's new fighter plane without a functioning cannon to save money.

The ministry calculated it could save GBP90 million (HK$1.3 billion) on the GBP105 billion bill for the Royal Air Force version of the Eurofighter Typhoon if it declined to have it fitted with a specially designed machine cannon.

The jets, a collaborative project between European countries, were to be fitted with a dummy version of the gun constructed of lead to balance the aircraft in flight.

However, engineers discovered that aerodynamic concerns meant the dummy would have to replicate the cannon so precisely in its weight and shape that it was cheaper to fit the real thing.

Not to be defeated, the ministry has decided to save GBP2.5 million by taking the 232 aircraft it has ordered with the cannon but without the special ammunition it requires, rendering it useless.

The air force said missile technology had made conventional cannons obsolete, but that claim has been challenged by strategists and retired fighter pilots.

A former, unnamed senior officer called the ministry's decision ridiculous.

'With a cannon you can fire warning shots, which you can't do with missiles, and in a messy conflict or some sort of crisis short of a full-scale war that could be very useful,' he said.

One of the air force's strategists, Air Commodore Andrew Lambert, said a conventional gun was vital, even on a modern fighter jet.

'If you are only going up against other combat planes then, okay, you use your missiles,' he said.

'But when you are dealing with terrorists and other unpredictable situations you want all the flexibility you can get and a gun gives you a lot of utility.'

A product of the cold war designed to counter the air supremacy of the Soviet Union's MiG jets, the Eurofighter project has been beset with financial, political and technical problems from its inception in 1984.