EFEVienna

Austria's ministry of defense and sport announced on Friday the country's air force was phasing out the Eurofighter fighter-bomber aircraft manufactured by the Airbus European consortium due to financial and military efficiency concerns.

The Austrian armed forces operate two fleets of jet planes: 15 Eurofighters with guided missiles in active service and 40 venerable Saab 105Ö planes, equipped with aircraft cannons, which will remain in operation until no later than 2020.

"The Eurofighter is history," said the Austrian minister of defense and sport, social-democrat Hans Peter Doskozil, at a press conference in Vienna.

He said he expected Austria to save two billion euros ($2.28 billion) if the pan-European combat aircraft was decommissioned.

Doskozil presented a report proposing alternatives to defend the Austrian airspace, which he considered essential to upgrade Austria's current aerial defense system.

The minister explained that he had decided to abandon both aircraft models forming the backbone of Austria's air defense to seek a single-model air fleet that was "military and financially efficient," an upgrade that could be completed by 2020.

"A decision has been taken to abandon the EF system," Doskozil said before announcing an immediate public competition to purchase a new aircraft system.

According to Doskozil, keeping the Eurofighter operational would cost Austria some five billion euros during the next 30 years.

"An alternative combat fleet could save the Austrian taxpayer up to two billion euros," he said.

The report was drafted by Task Force Eurofighter, a group of 26 experts that recommended decommissioning the Eurofighter Typhoon Tranche 1 (purchased in 2003) due to its mushrooming operational costs and "current limited operational capability."

According to experts, the Eurofighter's problems are its need for constant upgrades of software, avionics and the forced use of Tranche 2 components.

A parallel report by auditing company KPMG for Germany's federal defense ministry stated that Tranche 1 Eurofighters had the risk of higher costs and a shorter life span.

Doskozil also reminded that the Austrian state had filed a criminal complaint against Airbus Defence and Space GmbH (formerly EADS Deutschland GmbH) and the Eurofighter Jagdflugzeug GmbH, demanding economic compensation as both suppliers were neither capable, nor had any intention, of delivering the agreed Eurofighters (the more versatile Tranche 2 Block 8 or, alternatively, the Tranche 1 Block 5 variant).

The Austrian government filed the lawsuit on Feb. 16, alleging Airbus committed fraud in an order of Eurofighter jets agreed to in 2003, according to the defense ministry.

Doskozil said at the time that the damages to the Austrian treasury amounted to 1.1 billion euros ($1.17 billion).

"We will not accept Austrian taxpayers co-financing bribes in addition to the purchase price," said Doszkozil.

He added that his ministry had "clear proof" that Airbus defrauded the Austrian state in the 2003 purchase of 18 Eurofighter jets.

"As defense minister, I consider it my duty to report facts relevant to criminal prosecution and to claim compensation for the Austrian taxpayers' damage. This is what we did today," Doskozil said.

He added that the 1.1 billion euros in losses included 183.4 million euros in cost overruns.

These actions also sought to stop the Austrian state from falling back on to the second-ranked bidder.

The minister said the transition could take up to three years but vowed that the Austrian airspace would remain secure until then.

Doskozil did not specify which plane would substitute the Eurofighter but confirmed that talks were underway.

The chief of the Austrian air force, Karl Gruber, was asked if Russia was among the list of potential suppliers, and he replied that no countries were excluded and that the only criterion was the aircraft's performance.

as/mrp/dl