It may sound cruel, but the 3,000 job losses confirmed on Tuesday by BAE Systems should not really have come as a great surprise. The jobs are going because of poor sales of the Typhoon, a spectacularly expensive plane whose principal purpose seems to be wowing the crowds at air shows (it does).

Its name was changed from Eurofighter, perhaps to escape the long list of euro-prefixed financial disasters like Eurotunnel and Eurodisney, and its development makes for a classic Ministry of Defence horror story. Its origins go back nearly 40 years, and the tangled history served to obscure the awkward fact that the threat it was designed to counter had disappeared before the plane flew.

As the cost rose, and the start date for operation receded into the future, the MoD, BAe and its European partners justified the spending by some panglossian projections for sales of the plane. By the time the fore-runner first flew in 1986, the four participating European air forces had agreed to take 765 copies between them.  This number was a fantasy designed to make the cost per copy look reasonable.

The prototype finally flew in 1994. By 1988, the estimated cost of the programme to the UK had risen to £7 billion. By 1997 it was £17 billion, by 2003 £20 billion, and the latest estimate puts the all-up cost at £37 billion. When the Public Accounts Committee concluded that mismanagement had  inflated the costs by 75%, nobody was surprised.

The recent defence review narrowly decided against putting the whole project out of its misery (it axed the jump-jet instead) but it’s clear that the Typhoon only lives on because of the complexity of the cross-border manufacturing deals, and the size of the penalties for pulling out. This latter is a classic device for forcing these grands projets onwards at ruinous cost, and UK taxpayers have paid tens of billions of pounds over the years as a result.

It is scant comfort to the skilled workers who are about to lose their jobs, but at least some of them should be able to move to the Midlands and join Jaguar Land Rover’s expanding workforce. They will be producing something useful, too.

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