French Arms Firms Grapple With Virus Lock Down


By Pierre Tran

Paris – French arms companies have taken major steps following a national lock down ordered last week against the coronavirus, with some factories closed or cutting back, staff working from home, and shipyards working at a slower pace.

The government has declared a state of emergency in the health domain, with the Official Journal publishing March 24 a law granting two months of greater state power in the combat against Covid-19.

The lock down went into effect midday March 17, limiting the right for people to leave home and requiring an official document with boxes to tick for reasons of travel.

The government has since tightened those restrictions, including cutting the distance for personal exercise walks to one kilometer from home and a maximum of one hour to be out of doors. Hefty fines will be imposed for breaches of restrictions.

There are wide expectations the two-week lock down will be extended, as the pandemic continues to take lives.

Trade show cancelled

A spread of the virus has led to cancellation of the Eurosatory trade show for land weapons, a source close to the exhibition said.

The show organizers had decided it was “impossible” to postpone the exhibition, given the complexity for French and foreign exhibitors, and official delegations from around the world.

There were logistical concerns for the show, which takes 1-1/2 years to organize, the source said. A formal decision to cancel was expected March 26.

A  cancellation follows the cancellation of the Berlin ILA and Farnborough air shows.

Eurosatory had been due to be held June 8-12 just outside the capital.

The Royal International Air Tattoo air show, a prominent UK military event, has also been axed.

A launch of a program for a European medium-altitude, long-endurance drone has been pushed back, with a deal expected in October or November, a source close to the deal said. Governments were ready to accept a budget of some €7.2 billion ($7.8 billion), while industry seeks €7.4 billion. France had previously expected an agreement by mid year.

Fighter Jet Factory Locked Down

Dassault Aviation has closed factories and offices, including the key Merignac plant, southwest France, which builds the Rafale fighter jet.

“We are going through an exceptionally serious crisis with consequences on public health, with its breadth and impact on the medical care system, and also its effects on the economy and our company,” executive chairman Eric Trappier said in a March 22 note to staff posted on the company website. Factories were closed since the lock down started last Tuesday.

For office workers who could not work from home, the offices and open work spaces were cleaned every day, hand sanitizer provided and guidance given on distancing, he said.

A return to work would take place once factories and offices had been cleaned, he said in a March 23 note. The company was due to hold March 26 a special meeting of the works council to give an update, with information to be passed on to councils in each plant.

Production remained suspended until the health measures were implemented.

Dassault is prime contractor on the European project for a future combat air system and the Rafale, a key export product factored into the French defense budget. The company also planned to announce the launch of a new Falcon business jet this year. That was before the virus attack.

French Missiles Shuttered

MBDA, the missile maker, last Tuesday shut down its three sites in France, the only country of the four-nation consortium to do so. The plants in Britain, Germany and Italy are open.

In France, there are some 5,100 workers in three MBDA sites, with the head office at Plessiy Robinson, just outside the capital, and plants at Bourges and Selles-Saint Denis, central France.

There are plans to return gradually to work, reflecting priorities assigned to certain programs. Staff will be given protection kit and there will be two work shifts – morning and afternoon – with a cut in the number at work.

The priorities could be delivery of spares and service for the Mica air-to-air missile, ASMP-A airborne nuclear-tipped missile, and MMP anti-tank weapon.

Those in France cleared to work on classified information must work in the office, otherwise staff will work from home.

Shipyards Slow Ahead

Pierre Eric Pommellet takes the top job at shipbuilder Naval Group in these troubled times, succeeding Hervé Guillou, who hit retirement age on March 24.

Among the management issues Pommellet must grapple with is slower work at the Cherbourg and Lorient shipyards, with the former building Barracuda nuclear attack submarines, and the latter building the air defense frigate and frigate for defense and intervention.

The Toulon yard handles service for the Rubis class of nuclear attack submarine and Fremm multimission frigate, while Brest handles service of the Triomphant class of nuclear ballistic missile boats.

Toulon is handling the last complete overhaul of the Perle, the most recent of the Rubis boats, website Mer et Marine reported. That service will last some 18 months.

Naval Group employs around 16,000 staff, of which some 4,000 are working from home, plugged into secure computer networks.

Small and medium yards, such as Piriou and Couach, have closed, as they are too small to install the health protective measures.

So far, the plan is to hold the Euronaval trade show October 20-23, a spokesman for Gican a naval trade association said.

Brakes on Military Vehicles

Arquus, a subsidiary of truck maker Volvo, has slowed production of military vehicles at its four sites around France – Fourchambault, Marolles en Hurepoix, Saint Nazaire and Limoges.

There are small teams at the plants sending spares to the French army, a company spokesman. Service support is a vital issue.

There is the prospect of further deliveries of the Griffon multirole troop carrier, one of the armored vehicles in the €10 billion Scorpion Army modernization program. Arquus supplies drivelines and remote controlled machine guns on the Griffon, and is partnered with Nexter and Thales on the Scorpion program.

The joint venture last year delivered 92 Griffon and is due to ship 128 units this year. Some 936 units are due to be delivered by 2025, in a total order of 1,872.

The industrial partners were also due to deliver this year the first Jaguar, a combat and reconnaissance armored vehicle.

A400M Back in Production

Airbus restarted March 24 final assembly of the A400M military airlifter in Seville, southern Spain, after a four-day shut down for a vast cleaning operation.

Airbus flew March 23 an A400M from Toulouse, southern France, to Getafe airbase at Madrid, delivering face masks to the Spanish defense ministry.

Airbus delivered the eighth A400M to the Spanish air force two weeks ago, and is due to hand over the first unit to Luxembourg in a week or so. That Luxembourg aircraft will be flown by the Belgian air force, which will operate its own seven-strong fleet.

Over last weekend Airbus flew an A330-800 airliner to bring some two million masks from China to Europe. That was a test aircraft.

Thales, an electronics company, said on its website, “To minimise the spread of the virus, the group is following the directives of the governments of its countries of operation, adapting its working practices in line with the recommendations of the health authorities, and instructing employees to work from home whenever possible.”

In France, the virus had by March 24 killed 1,100 people, with 240 dying in the previous 24 hours, afternoon daily Le Monde reported. That accounted only for those who dying in hospital, with grave concern for the elderly living in retirement homes.

Five doctors were among those who had lost their lives.

Worldwide, coronavirus deaths approach 20,000, The Guardian daily reported.

The Direction Générale de l’Armement procurement office declined comment on the impact of the lock down on the defense industry.

The slideshow below highlights the warnings which the French government is providing to the population.