By Pierre Tran
Paris – France would do well to discard Germany as a military and industrial partner and strike out on its own, Vauban, an anonymous group of defense specialists, said Jan. 24 in La Tribune, a French business news website.
“Three years after the signature of the Aix le Chapelle treaty (Jan. 22 2019), there is an incontrovertible truth: Franco-German ties in defense and armaments are a resounding failure,” the op ed said in a strident attack on the Paris-Berlin partnership.
Vauban, which describes itself as a group of some 20 defense specialists, does not give their names, perhaps raising questions of open governance.
The Vauban articles have pointed up in no uncertain terms perceived lapses in French support for the arms industry at home and abroad, with particular criticism for Germany, both under the previous Christian Democrat-led administration and the new “traffic light” coalition of Social Democrats, Greens, and the Free Democratic Party.
French analysts, however, pointed up the need for Paris to stay close to Berlin and the compromises required on both sides of the Rhine. Large arms programs bring heavy financial burdens, calling for close partners.
The latest Vauban op ed carried a particularly harsh tone, calling out what it saw as German “treachery” in response to Berlin’s call for a study on whether to buy the F-35 fighter jet, seen as a policy switch threatening the European Future Combat Air System project.
“It is true it (F-35) is the only modern aircraft which can be certified to carry the future American B-61-12 gravity bomb, but how can it not be seen that this undoubted procurement is both a complete allegiance to Nato and the U.S., but also a betrayal of France and the FCAS project, which will have its budget gutted by the acquisition of the worst enemy of the European military aeronautics industry?” the defense group said. It was time for a “divorce.”
The U.S. life extension program for the B-61-12 weapon replaces various models of tactical nuclear bombs, namely the B61-3, 4, and 7, with a single version capable of hitting different types of targets.
Besides posing a perceived threat to FCAS, Vauban points to Germany pulling out of the Tiger Mk 3 attack helicopter upgrade, the maritime airborne warfare system (MAWS) – a project for a new maritime patrol aircraft, and the entry of Rheinmetall into a project for a new tank and team of vehicles, the Main Ground Combat System.
The notion that France should break away from Germany was unwise, analysts said.
“France and Germany are two large countries which cannot be ignored,” said Renaud Bellais, a director at Fondation Jean-Jaurès, a think tank.
A partnership with Germany made sense, with cooperation with the UK more complicated in the wake of Brexit, he said.
“It’s a real concern,” he said.
London had dropped a plan to build its own satellite communications network due to lack of funds, after being ejected from the European Galileo system in response to Britain leaving the European Union.
If Germany acquired the F-35, that would complicate the funding for FCAS, he said. France could go it alone, but the development and production cost would be much higher, the order would be smaller, and the production line would close earlier – maybe after 10 years.
“France and Germany need to make compromises and there is a real negotiation,” he said. “There is interdependence, which is different from dependence. It is wrong to be idealistic and it is wrong to be over critical regarding cooperative programs between both countries.”
Major arms projects last about 50 years, so it was essential to put the programs on a sound footing, with cooperation in political, military and industrial terms, he said.
The expected contract for the European medium-altitude, long-endurance drone showed compromise was eventually possible, he said.
France, Germany and Spain are partner nations on the planned unmanned aerial vehicle, providing a budget of some €7 billion ($8 billion).
The estimated cost of the FCAS project was €80 billion-€100 billion, with partners France, Germany, and Spain sharing the financial burden.
The 2020 total defense spending of the 26 member states of the European Defence Agency was €198 billion, up five percent from the previous year, the EDA said Dec. 6 2021. But cooperative procurement of equipment fell to a new low of €4.1 billion, down 13 percent.
The sale last year of 80 Rafales, worth €14 billion, to the United Arab Emirates could be seen as reducing the importance of German funding to France on the FCAS, specialist newsletter Defence Analysis reported in its January edition. That UAE deal will bring in a further €2 billion for the weapons.
The UAE deal will boost revenue for Dassault, Safran, Thales, and the other 400 or so companies in aeronautics, but will not flow directly to the Bercy finance ministry.
The government receives two percent levied on export deals, to recover funds for development of national arms programs when those weapons are sold to clients abroad, the spokesman for the armed forces ministry, Hervé Grandjean, told journalists Dec. 9.
“Dassault is not the French state,” said Jean-Pierre Maulny, deputy director of Institut des Relations Internationales et Stratégiques, a think tank. “France cannot work all on its own.”
For François Lureau, director of consultancy EuroFLconsult and former procurement chief, the op ed by Vauban gave “a nostalgic view of 50 years ago.”
“What could France do on its own?” he said, adding that France could not have operated in the sub-Saharan Sahel region without US help.
“Defense is politics,” he said. FCAS was a political decision, with the government providing funding and supporting industrial capacity.
There was concern as Germany relies heavily on trade with Russia, but if Europe wanted political weight, then strategic autonomy needed to be considered, to reduce dependency.
“It is very complicated, hard to manage,” he said.
A senior executive said, “France cannot go on its own. Where else can they go?”
The UK was seen as changing every five minutes, depending on what Boris Johnson felt on the day, the executive said. Italy had teamed up with the British, while it took a couple of years for Spain to find funds for the European drone.
“The order for the drone is a first step,” the executive said. “Nobody thought it would happen. Cooperation — it takes time.”
There is concern in some French companies over the arms export rules agreed in the Franco-German treaty, which some see as giving Berlin too great a say on deals with nations such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia, where there are concerns over human rights violation. The German government and the powerful Bundestag parliament prefer sales to European nations – although Ukraine is something of a sensitive subject just now.
The Aix le Chapelle accord, also known as the Treaty of Aachen, entered into force Jan. 22 2020, a year after the signing by the then German chancellor,Angela Merkel, and French president Emmanuel Macron. That was an agreement on bilateral cooperation and integration, extending the landmark Elysées treaty signed 56 years before.
Sébastien Le Prestre de Vauban was a military engineer who served mainly in the 17th century, and is remembered for his distinctive star-shaped fortifications, or bastion forts.
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