VIENNA, July 7 (Reuters) - Austria wants to end its Eurofighter jet programme early and replace it with a cheaper alternative fleet of aircraft leased from another government, its defence minister said on Friday, amid a legal battle over the jets with Airbus.
Austria sued Airbus and the Eurofighter consortium, including Britain's BAE Systems and Italy's Leonardo , in February, alleging deception and fraud linked to a near 2 billion euro ($2.3 billion) jet order in 2003. Airbus and the consortium have denied the accusations.
The charges were the latest in a series of rows between Austria and the consortium, which have sparked two parliamentary inquiries and resulted in Airbus boss Tom Enders being investigated by Vienna prosecutors.
The defence ministry said in a statement that Austria's 15 Eurofighter jets could be phased out from 2020. The continued use of the Eurofighter planes for 30 years - the normal life span of such jets - would cost up to 5 billion euros.
Buying and operating a new fleet comprised of 15 single-seater and three twin-seater supersonic jets over the same period could be 2 billion euros cheaper than continuing its current programme, the ministry said.
"It is necessary to get a grip on the overflowing costs of the Eurofighter," Defence Minister Hans Peter Doskozil said.
The ministry said it had already been in touch with other governments, air forces and aircraft producers.
Austria prefers a government-to-government deal that would see Vienna lease the aircraft from another country, rather than organising a tender that would take much longer and might jeopardise the 2020-2023 timeframe for the change of fleet.
Such a government-to-government deal could involve the other country buying the jets from one of its national producers whose planes have self-defence systems, radar-guided missiles and can operate at night and at supersonic speed.
The tranche 1 type of the Eurofighter jets which Austria uses is also in operation in Britain, Germany, Italy and Spain.
$1 = 0.8782 euros Reporting by Shadia Nasralla; Editing by Mark Potter