THE Eurofighter has completed its first missile-firing exercise, it was announced today.

Further trials of the £40 billion project - which will safeguard thousands of Lancashire jobs - have seen the fighter flying at twice the speed of sound and completing a four-hour flight, the longest yet.

The aircraft has also successfully completed an in-flight refuelling trial over the Irish Sea with an RAF VC10 tanker.

"The latest progress in this major defence project is very encouraging," said Defence Secretary George Robertson.

He went on "I am delighted that Eurofighter is well on its way to active service with the RAF and air forces of our programme partners (Germany, Italy and Spain)."

The first missile fired - a Sidewinder AIM-9L short-range air-to-air missile - involved the DA7, one of the two Italian development planes.

The other achievements were down to the DA2, which is based at the British Aerospace Warton site and which is one of the two British-built development aircraft.

BAe's chief test pilot Paul Hopkins took the aircraft to around 1,500mph - about 200mph faster than Concorde's top speed.

He said: "It is a sensational aircraft and has the potential to go much faster."

A second Italian development aircraft, the DA3, has flown for the first time with external wing-mounted fuel tanks, which hold 1,000 litres of fuel each and significantly boost the aircraft's range.

Britain is buying 232 of the aircraft to replace Tornados and Jaguars. They will enter RAF service in 2002.

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