LE BOURGET, France Eurofighter Typhoon partner nations Britain, Germany, Spain and Italy will receive futuristic new helmets that will allow pilots to take aim at enemy craft just by looking at them.
The Typhoon was designed to have its weapons systems operated by a helmet-mounted display system, but while the fighter jet entered service around 2004, the roll-out of the helmet has been slowed down by budget and design issues.
British RAF pilots tested the first helmets last summer, and while they are not being used in Libya -- where the Typhoon has flown its first combat missions -- analysts believe the conflict is speeding up their roll-out.
Built by Britain's BAE Systems (BAES.L) specifically for Typhoon jets, the Striker helmets are tailored to each of the pilots, who have their heads scanned to ensure a perfect fit.
"The helmet gives you the edge in a dogfight; the ability to see a target and lock onto it," BAE test pilot Nat Makepeace told Reuters, adding that the helmet also improved situational awareness, crucial to fighter pilots.
So far 50 helmets have been delivered to the air forces of Italy, Germany, Spain and UK, with a delivery rate of about eight per month, Eurofighter spokesman Marco-Valerio Bonelli told Reuters. In the UK, they will be operational by the end of the year.
The helmets work by optically tracking the pilot's head movements and projecting flight data and target information onto the visor instead of the traditional head-up display (HUD).
Without the helmet, pilots have to point the nose of their jet toward the target until they can see it in the HUD. With it, they can aim at enemy jets anywhere in the sky around them.
Costing about 250,000 pounds ($400,100) apiece, the helmets will be deployed in all Typhoons, of which Eurofighter has delivered 278 to six air forces and has orders for 429 more.
The Typhoon is built by BAE, Italy's Finmeccanica SIFI.MI and European aerospace and defense firm EADS EAD.PA.
Eurofighter puts the cost of a jet at 59 million euros ($84 million), although the UK's Committee of Public Accounts has estimated the price per plane at 126 million pounds ($202 million), based on overall costs.
Military analysts believe the helmet-mounted displays will become standard equipment for all new fighter jets.
"The future of air combat is unmanned flight, but in this last generation of manned flight, these helmets will be the only way to interface pilots with their weapons systems," Philip Stonor, former UK deputy defense attache in Paris, told Reuters.
The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter -- which will be the world's most advanced warplane when it goes into service later this decade -- has dropped the HUD altogether and replaced it with a helmet-mounted display connected to cameras on the outside of the jet that let the pilot literally look through the aircraft.
But like the F-35 itself, developed by Lockheed Martin Corp (LMT.N), the new helmet has suffered technical problems, including with night vision and latency -- the delay between a pilot's head movement and the movement of the screen image.
There has even been talk of bringing the HUD back.
One of the largest players in the military helmet market is Israeli defense contractor Elbit Systems (ESLT.TA), which has built a business retrofitting helmets on existing jets.
Competition between BAE, Elbit and other helmet makers such as France's Thales (TCFP.PA) focuses on making the helmets lighter, widening their field of vision, improving night and binocular vision, and simplifying connections to the plane's computer systems.
Yaron Kranz, Elbit's research and development director for helmet-mounted systems, said that while the helmets were first developed for air-to-air combat, they could also be used for air-to-ground attacks.
Just by looking at a target on the ground, pilots can lock in its GPS coordinates and fire, or even transmit the coordinates to other aircraft.
Elbit is also looking beyond military applications.
"As the fighter market becomes saturated, it is time to look at other markets: for training jets, fire fighters, search-and-rescue, even commercial avionics," Kranz said.
(Editing by James Regan)