Wings clipped

Future dims for Franco-German combat air system as companies squabble

combat air system, fcas
You’re only as old as you feel. Source: Reuters

Perhaps nothing represents the Franco-German ambition to free Europe from dependence on the United States more than the joint project to develop a new fighter jet as part of a comprehensive combat air system.

Simultaneously, nothing represents exactly why Europe won’t win that independence any time soon more than the political and commercial squabbles that have beset the program before it even begins.

French and German defense ministers Florence Parly and Ursula von der Leyen agreed in July that France would take the lead in developing a next-generation fighter jet. But the Future Combat Air System plan also includes satellites, guided missiles, drones, surveillance planes, tanker aircraft and ships. At least, that’s the concept.

Even if it does get off the ground, the system won’t be ready for deployment before 2040. That’s a long time to wait, considering the fighter jet is supposed to replace the Eurofighter and Rafale planes that are already approaching obsolescence.

France and Germany will fall behind

The project already successfully sold to several European countries risks leaving the two leading EU military forces unequipped to maintain their existing role in NATO, let alone advance an independent Europe.

Companies are jostling to take on leadership of the mammoth project, which will cost well into the three-digit billions and bring enormous profits. While politicians agreed France would take the lead on the fighter jet, they did not say which company should have the primary contractor role for the entire system.

The French-German aerospace company Airbus, which has a robust defense business, would like to take the lead. To the dismay of company officials, however, they find themselves treated as a German company even though government shareholdings are at parity and the incoming chief executive, Guillaume Faury, is a Frenchman.

In fact, it is the French contractor Thales that is exploiting its political network and its long relationship with the French military procurement agency DGA behind the scenes to gain the upper hand. The French company produces satellites and aircraft guidance systems and has invested massively in artificial intelligence to network soldiers and weapons systems. It doesn’t dream of letting Airbus get the prime contracting role.

Dominant role

French deputy Jean-Charles Larsonneur, spokesman for the defense committee, wrote recently that it had been agreed France would have a dominant role in the development of the Future Combat Air System as a whole. But in fact, it has not.

France’s Dassault Aviation has been chosen as the lead contractor on the fighter jet, and Airbus will be in charge of drone development. But leadership of the entire ecosystem — by far the most demanding role — has not been determined.

Berlin officials are asking everyone to have patience. No more tasks can be allocated until a comprehensive study next year establishes a technical platform. But German firms are worried that France wants an 80 percent share of the project. The German government would find that unacceptable because it would close off participation by contractors in other European countries.

France has leverage thanks to its more generous export regulations. Paris doesn’t want to develop a combat air system that could be blocked for export by Germany’s stricter rules. Lawmakers hope to reach an agreement that France can export components of the FCAS if the German share of production doesn’t exceed a certain level.

Maybe the politicians should relax, though. If the governments can’t find a way to halt the warfare among the companies soon, there won’t ever be an Future Combat Air System.

Thomas Hanke is the Paris correspondent for Handelsblatt. Donata Riedel covers financial policy. Darrell Delamaide adapted this story into English for Handelsblatt Global. To contact the authors: hanke@handelsblatt.com and riedel@handelsblatt.com.

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