European Airpower At a Turning Point


06/02/2011 By Robbin Laird

When the UK government issued its amazingly “un-strategic” strategic defense review, the main casualties were air and naval power.  In probably the most rapid invalidation of a government strategy on record, the Libyan events underscored that everything the Cameron government wished to get rid of, it needed to use in the Libyan campaign, which it sponsored.

Which strategic direction for European Air Power? Credit: Bigstock

Literally, key assets headed for the bone yard were pressed into duty to fly the British flag and support European aspirations to “protect” civilians in Libya, but not promote regime change.  It was Bush lite for Libya.

Then the Indians downselected European aircraft with the expectations that there will be a robust Indian-European combat air relationship.  As I have written earlier, the geopolitical consequences of this decision and these aspirations are potentially very significant.

One could note the absence of focus in Europe on what it means if Europe and India get joined in the hip on building new fighter aircraft for the indefinite future.

First, Europe or at least part of Europe, now has to back India in any fight with China.

Second, the EU commission’s notion of lifting Arms Embargos against China is certainly put into play.

Thirdly, the balancing of China and India now becomes a core European priority.

Fourth, and how will European labor unions respond to the transfer of the future of European fighter combat construction to India?

What these two geographically separated events have in common is posing a stark challenge to Europe and its commitment to airpower.

The Libyan campaign has been conducted with the U.S. in the background, not the foreground.  This means that those states, which have contributed airpower – notably Britain and France – but others as well, have shown the world what they can and cannot do.

The question going forward is this the end of the beginning or the beginning of the end?

Will those states commitment to airpower – the Eurofighter, Rafael and F-35 states – find ways to make their capabilities work more effectively together?  Will the new lift command lead to a better integration and collaborative support to core European capabilities?  Will the new tanker capabilities be purchased in Europe and support a regional and global air combat and projection capability?

Or will the financial crisis be used to simply block the ability to invest, and to lead to failure to leverage collaborative core competencies?  Will there be a re-birth of intelligent investment and collaborative support, or will the Euro crisis simply be a last hurrah for Europe as an air power?

The potential for rebirth is inherent in the Indian situation.

The Indian decision to downselect European combat aircraft does raise a number of core questions about the potential impacts on the global defense industry.

First, whichever European company or consortium wins will be in a key position to build a new manned fighter for Europe itself in the future.  There is significant potential for India and Europe to sort through a collaborative effort, which will not just be about SELLING a fighter TO India, but rather reshaping European offerings to Europe in the future.

Second, assuming the Indian collaboration can yield a cost effective and capable product, such a product could become globally viable with significant 2nd and 3rd world sales opportunities.

Third, perhaps the Euro-Indian team could also anchor a version of the SAAB global offerings.  SAAB has offered a combat aircraft and a command and control aircraft and would clearly wish to add a UAV to the mix.  There is a potential to take the Euro-Indian team into such waters whereby sensors and weapons can be distributed across three platforms, unmanned, manned and C4ISR.

We are at a turning point.  As Francis Tusa underscored, the Indian competition might be a turning point for the United States.  But Libya and India pose even starker questions about the future of European air power and the industry which supports it.