By Pierre Tran
Paris – France and the U.K. signed Feb. 18 contracts with MBDA for development of next generation cruise and anti-ship missiles, with the weapons due to enter service by 2030, the European missile builder said in a statement.
The long awaited agreement for work on risk reduction was significant, industry executives said, backing a rare case of industrial cooperation between France and the U.K., which have gone through a time of tension between president Emmanuel Macron and prime minister Boris Johnson.
“The United Kingdom and France have confirmed the launch of the preparation works for the Future Cruise/Anti-Ship Weapon (FC/ASW) program, after the signature today of a government agreement and associated contracts by the French Direction Générale de l’Armement (DGA) and the British Defence Equipment & Support (DE&S), MBDA said.
“These preparation works will focus on the co-ordinated development of a program of next generation deep strike and heavy anti-ship weapons,” the company said.
No details of the budget and development time were available.
The agreement signed by the procurement offices was a sign of “drop in tension” between Britain and France, a defense executive said, the start of a welcome change in political relations between the two nations.
There was a “return of dialog,” reflecting greater European cooperation sparked by the crisis in Ukraine, the executive said.
President Emmanuel Macron called Boris Johnson to brief the British prime minister before he flew to Moscow for a Feb. 7 summit meeting with Russian president Vladimir Putin, in a bid to defuze the Ukraine crisis. That call to Johnson was among those the French head of state made to leaders of allied nations, including two to U.S. president Joe Biden.
The Ukraine crisis helped move the project along but was not the “trigger” factor, a second executive said. There was need to resume work on the project, and on the British side, there was a particular perceived threat from China.
The teams of the two partner nations had been ready to work on the risk reduction phase but had to wait six months due to lack of French political will, the second executive said. A return of political backing allowed the procurement chiefs — rather than the ministers — to sign the intergovernmental agreement.
“That was the right level,” the second executive said.
A chill in relations was seen when the French armed forces minister, Florence Parly, pulled out of a meeting with her British counterpart, Ben Wallace, last September.
That ministerial meeting was due to be held one week after the U.K., Australia and the U.S. announced a plan to build nuclear-powered attack submarines for the Australian navy under the AUKUS agreement.
A memorandum of understanding on the MBDA development work had been due to be signed at that ministerial meeting, which the French minister had scuppered.
The AUKUS project sank a project for Naval Group, a French shipbuilder, to design and build a diesel-electric attack submarine for Australia, in a deal estimated to be worth some €30 billion (US $34 billion).
France imposed a hold order on relations with the UK, as British officers played a key role in opening talks between Canberra and Washington, after the Australian navy switched interest to sailing nuclear-powered boats instead of conventional submarines.
Australia changed its procurement plan due to a heightened perception of threat from China, after picking in 2016 Naval Group for studies for the Australian Navy’s Attack class of boats.
The MBDA contract for cooperative development opened up a new phase in an Anglo-French replacement for the Scalp-Storm Shadow air-launched cruise missile, and Exocet and Harpoon anti-ship weapons.
“It will assess two complementary missile concepts, expected to be fielded at the end of the decade: a subsonic low observable concept and a supersonic, highly manoeuvrable concept,” MBDA said.
The development work follows MBDA’s studies in the FC/ASW concept phase, which had a budget estimated at €100 million.
The planned weapons will be a “game changing capability” to hit hardened targets on land and at sea, at very long distance, beating air defense systems in “increasingly contested battlespace environments,” the company said.
There was risk of two classes of next generation European cruise missiles, a third defense executive said, with the MBDA FC/ASW missiles potentially competing with remote carriers from Airbus.
If the Airbus remote carriers were just electronic jamming, loitering systems, there would not be direct competition with MBDA missiles, the executive said, but arming the former system would effectively split the market for long range weapons.
Remote carriers are a key part of the European project for a Future Combat Air System, backed by France, Germany and Spain. Airbus is prime contractor for the RC, with MBDA and Thales as industrial partners.
Airbus displayed a full scale model of an RC at the 2019 Paris air show.