France, Germany and Spain have agreed to start the next phase of developing a new sixth-generation fighter (Future Combat Air System, FCAS), Europe’s largest defence project, estimated to cost more than 100 billion euros. No details have been released.
A French government source also confirmed that a solution had been found to the obstacles existing between the three countries’ defence industry companies, paving the way for the next phase of the fighter jet project.
According to earlier information, the next phase of FCAS development is expected to cost around 3.5 billion euros, which will be divided equally between the three countries.
The French company “Dassault”, “Airbus” (Airbus) and “Indra” (Indra) – the last two representing Germany and Spain respectively – participate in the program to replace the French “Rafale” (Rafale), the German and Spanish “Eurofighter” (Eurofighter) from 2040 with the new combat machines.
In July 2017, French President Emmanuel Macron and then-German Chancellor Angela Merkel announced their initial plans for FCAS, which would feature a fighter plane and a variety of related weaponry, such as unmanned aerial vehicles.
The issue and the grey areas surrounding the project
In February 2021, following a Franco-German council, Angela Merkel cast a chill when discussing the Future Air Combat System [SCAF], a program launched in 2017 by France and Germany, later joined by Spain.
“You know it’s a project under French leadership, but the German partners still need to be at a satisfactory level compared to their [French] counterparts. We must therefore see the questions of industrial property very precisely, sharing of tasks and sharing of leadership”, she had launched, thus making herself the advocate of the demands posed by her industry… and the Bundestag [lower house of the German Parliament ].
At the time, there was talk of launching phase 1B (for a demonstrator, Ed.), and the primary bottleneck involved programme pillar no. 1, or the new generation of combat aircraft (NGF). Dassault Aviation intended to preserve the levers enabling it to fulfil its role as prime contractor, posing a challenge to Airbus, represented by its German and Spanish subsidiaries, as it had already made significant concessions.
In fact, the French company had already agreed that 50 per cent of the specified responsibilities would be completed without a designated manager and that the remaining 50 per cent would be divided according to the rule of three-thirds, with two-thirds going to Airbus via its two subsidiaries. But, the company refused to give over his intellectual property, the NGF’s flying controls, functional architecture, man-machine interface, or stealth.
Regardless, and despite the fact that three assessments (two from the German Ministry of Defense and one from the German Federal Court of Auditors) had blasted the “French stranglehold” on the SCAF, the Bundestag only gave lip service to the financing required to commence phase 1B. This made it possible for the government to sign Implementing Arrangement No. 3 afterwards. However, an agreement was still required between the manufacturers involved in the development of NGF.
In March, the CEO of Dassault Aviation, Éric Trappier, did not hide his impatience. “With France leading the contract, Dassault Aviation is ready to sign. We did everything necessary to be able to sign with Airbus. I am awaiting the signature of Airbus”, he had launched. And to evoke a “plan B”.
Michael Schellhorn, CEO of Airbus Defense & Space, increased the stakes in a June interview with the French newspaper Les Échos by questioning Dassault Aviation’s title as the “best athlete” in the flight control area.
Simultaneously, the possibility of a failure of the SCAF, or more specifically, the NGF, began to be discussed more openly in France and Germany. Observe the statements made by certain deputies (including the majority) during the National Assembly’s assessment of the Defense mission’s credits for 2023.
However, despite the manufacturers’ staunch defence of their stances, the debates continued. And they ultimately prevailed, although it has yet to be discovered who from Dassault Aviation and Airbus made concessions. Or if it is a matter of not allowing a portion of the phase 1B funding to be lost (i.e. 3.6 billion euros, Ed.).
However, on the evening of November 18, German Defense Minister Christine Lambrecht declared via Twitter that “intensive negotiations” between industrialists had resulted in a “political consensus” on the SCAF. And to view it as an “important sign of excellent Franco-German-Spanish cooperation,” adding that it “strengthens Europe’s military capabilities and guarantees important know-how not only for our [industry, Ed.] but also for European industry”.
According to AFP, Élysée responded with a remark nearly identical to that of Ms Lambrecht, but without omitting that “France is the project’s leader.” In this regard, it is surprising that Berlin made this announcement before France.
Sébastien Lecornu, the French Minister for the Armed Forces, has not yet commented. In addition, Dassault Aviation has not issued any press releases and has remained silent on social media.
For the moment, only Airbus has spoken about this agreement which, according to it, “represents a big step forward for this flagship European defence program”. But, he continued, “a number of formal steps in the respective countries must be completed in order to allow a rapid signing of the contract with which we will have to comply”.
However, the path remains lengthy and riddled with obstacles. The Bundestag reaffirmed its desire to see the SCAF and the MGCS [Main Ground Combat System, or, to simplify, the Franco-German tank of the future, whose direction was entrusted to Berlin, Ed.] advance at the “same pace” and defended a “better consideration of the interests of German industry” during last week’s examination of the German defence budget for 2023. According to Germany, there are still two prerequisites that need to be accomplished.
Lastly, it is also feasible that the French Parliament will have a change of heart if it believes that neither the SCAF nor the MGCS adequately defends French interests.
As a reminder, the six other pillars of the SCAF relating to engines were to be led by Safran, which, at Berlin’s insistence, was compelled to form the EUMET joint venture with the German MTU. And Airbus Germany is driving the development of “connected effectors” alongside MBDA’s French and German businesses and Satnus of Spain. The same applies to the “combat cloud,” this time in collaboration with Thales and Indra [also designated “leader” for sensors]. Finally, Airbus Spain is involved in stealth, with Airbus Germany and Dassault Aviation recognised as “major partners.”