Austria is a tiny, politically neutral country with no nearby enemies. And yet its air force possesses 15 high-performance Typhoon jet fighters.
Not only are the twin-engine, supersonic warplanes unnecessary in light of Vienna’s defense needs—they’re also too expensive for the government’s modest military budget.
The 15 Typhoons rarely fly. And when they do, they carry only a tiny fraction of the weaponry that other Typhoon operators—the U.K., Germany, Spain, Italy and Saudi Arabia—routinely hang on the high-tech fighters.
And in stark contrast to other countries—which usually employ twice as many pilots as they have fighters, thus ensuring there’s always someone available to fly a particular plane into battle—the Austrian air force’s payroll is sufficient for just 11 front-line Typhoon pilots and one trainee.
In other words, Austria has way more high-end air-combat capability than it can afford to actually make useful. Taken together, Vienna’s air-power investment produces almost embarrassingly modest results.
On any given day, just three Typhoons are combat-ready with pilots and weapons—and only between 8:00 a.m. and 4:00 p.m. Their operating budget allows for a combined 180 minutes of flying per day within those business hours.
The Typhoons take off so rarely that, at current usage rates, the airframes could last for centuries with adequate upkeep. Unlike, say, U.S. Navy F/A-18s, which fly so often that the Americans worry about them wearing out after just 20 years of use.
And when Austria’s fighters do launch—to patrol over some high-profile meeting or to escort a wayward airliner—they often carry only a single, short-range air-to-air missile.
So much warplane for so little firepower.
Best plane bribery can buy
Alleged bribery could explain the whole, absurd Austrian Typhoon debacle. It’s possible Vienna shelled out $2 billion for warplanes it doesn’t need because Eurofighter, the consortium that produces Typhoons, paid off key officials.
To be sure, Austria needs some warplanes. Most industrialized countries—isolated New Zealand is one exception—possess at least a few jet fighters for aerial self-protection, otherwise known as “air policing.”
But countries of Austria’s size, wealth and situation—nine or ten million people, a GDP of a few hundred billion dollars, no immediate military threat—tend to favor inexpensive fighters. The Czech Republic and Hungary each bought 14 copies of Sweden’s single-engine Gripen fighter, priced to move at just over $60 million apiece.
In the early 2000s, Austria rejected the Gripen in favor of the $125-million Typhoon, even though Austria’s previous fighter had been the 1950s-vintage Draken, the Gripen’s uncomplicated Swedish predecessor.
It would be years before Vienna’s preference began to make sense. In November 2012, German police raided the Hamburg home of one Frank Walter P., looking for evidence of corruption.
“During the sale of Eurofighter Typhoon jets to Austria, an estimated €113.5 million ($144 million) is believed to have been transferred from [Eurofighter member] EADS to the accounts of dubious companies,” Der Spiegel explained.
“Public prosecutors in Vienna and Munich suspect that the millions of euros may have been used to bribe Austrian decision-makers—or as kick-back payments to greedy EADS managers—or perhaps to establish slush funds within the consortium.”
In any event, in the early 2000s Vienna wanted 24 Typhoons. Then leftists gained power in Austria’s 2006 elections. Vowing to cancel the Typhoon deal, they discovered that the cancellation fees would have been more than a billion dollars.
So instead they cut the order to just 15 copies of the most basic “Tranche 1” Typhoon—and ultimately paid for just a few IRIS-T heat-seeking missiles, 12 pilots and no more than 1,070 hours of flight time per year for the whole fleet.
After all, with an annual military budget of just $4 billion, that’s all Austria can afford. Every Typhoon flight hour costs as much as $15,000 once you count fuel and maintenance. A Gripen can fly for an hour for around $5,000.
The operational cutbacks are the inevitable result of a small country buying too much fighter. And limited flying time can have dangerous consequences. Austria’s air force doesn’t have many responsibilities, but it must at least protect the country’s air space.
That’s hard to do with three hours of flying per day. Just ask the Swiss. On the early morning of Feb. 17, the copilot of an Ethiopian Boeing 767 airliner flying from Addis Ababa to Rome hijacked the plane and its 202 passengers while the pilot was in the toilet.
Italian jet fighters intercepted the airliner and, later, French jets followed it until it landed in Geneva. The Swiss air force was unable to send its own F-18 fighters to help with the aerial policing … because Switzerland’s flying branch wasn’t yet open for business.
Realizing it’s got its own gap, this fall the Austrian defense ministry announced it would upgrade 12 of its nearly 50-year-old Saab 105 combat trainers, which are subsonic and even more lightly armed than the Typhoons.
The Saab 105s will fly 1,200 hours of air policing every year, 130 hours more than the Typhoons do. For Austria, it would have been better to buy cheaper fighters—more powerful than Saab trainers but less powerful than Typhoons—and fly them more often.
But then, possible bribes worth potentially tens of millions of euros have a way of defeating reason.