The Lost Decade for Europe’s Next Generation Fighter?


By Pierre Tran

Paris – The European partner nations France, Germany and Spain looked like they were losing a decade due to a delay in launching a prototype for a next generation fighter jet, Eric Trappier, executive chairman of Dassault Aviation, said June 7.

“Between us, 2040 is already gone because we cannot get started, and the negotiations will certainly be long, not for this particular phase but the following one, which will take some time,” he said at Paris Air Forum, a conference organized by La Tribune, a financial news website.

“For 2040, there will certainly be a Mk1 ‘perhaps under certain conditions…’ so we are looking at the 2050s,” he said.

Talks appear to have broken down between Dassault and Airbus, the German industrial partner, for a phase 1B contract to build a technology demonstrator for the fighter. The fighter is at the heart of a future combat air system, backed by France, Germany and Spain.

The demonstrator is due to fly in 2027 with remote carrier drones, key elements of FCAS.

The German unit of Airbus declined to sign late last year the contract for phase 1B drafted by Dassault, the French prime contractor. Airbus is seen as effectively seeking to be joint prime contractor rather than a subcontractor to Dassault’s leading role as prime and architect.

Airbus, Dassault, and Indra are industrial partners respectively for Germany, France and Spain on FCAS. The Airbus unit at Manching, southern Germany, supports the Eurofighter Typhoon, while Dassault builds the Rafale at Merignac just outside Bordeaux, southwest France.

Airbus is seeking what it sees as the “right level of collaboration.” “We have some industrial difficulties in terms of deciding who does what in this,” Michael Schoellhorn, chief executive of Airbus Defence and Space, told the conference.

There are six industrial pillars on FCAS ready to start, he said, and everyone was waiting for the pillar for the new fighter to be launched. “There is one pillar in which we have difficulties, which I would describe as combining leadership and maitre d’oeuvre (prime contractor) — which we do not dispute at all — with the right level of collaboration,” he said. “This is what needs to happen for it to be successful.”

The right level of collaboration was the best way to put creativity, intelligence, and money of the companies involved to work, he said.

Joël Barre, head of Direction Générale de l’Armement, the French procurement office, said he hoped there would soon be a settlement in the industrial dispute. “I hope we find a way out in the next few weeks,” he told the conference. “The present situation cannot go on forever. The preparation work which has been agreed should get started.”

An efficient governance and industrial organization called for a clearly identified prime contractor, and this should be the most competent, the one with the highest level of expertise, he said.

Barre has made clear Dassault should be in the pilot’s seat. “Airbus should sign the contract that Dassault has proposed,” he told May 4 the defense committee of the French senate. “I agree with you, chairman, that we should be firm with the German side on the commitments which have already been made —  particularly the industrial organization which calls for clear responsibility for each (industrial) pillar,” he said.

“There needs to be a prime contractor and architect for the aircraft. The best in the domain should be appointed, namely Dassault France, not Airbus Germany,” he said, and there should be balance between the two countries on all arms programs run on a cooperative basis.

The DGA chief appears to have called for political pressure to get the phase 1B contract signed. Barre told the senators that he had proposed the three partner nations – France, Germany and Spain – draft a statement of intent saying they welcomed the signing of contracts for phase 1B and they would apply the measures set out in the cooperation agreement. “I have made a proposal to my counterparts along these lines and I expect their reply in the next few days,” he said, adding that he was due to meet his German counterpart May 10.

President Emmanuel Macron and his German counterpart, Olaf Scholz, were also due to meet around that time. “I hope we will be able to break through this deadlock,” he said. Barre had met his German counterpart last month, the DGA said.

The three partner nations are drafting that joint declaration and the aim is to remind the nations and companies of the conditions for moving from phase 1B to the following phases, it is understood. That high-level reminder carries hopes Airbus will feel the political pressure, accept leadership by Dassault, and sign the contract.

Scholz said at a press conference at the May 9 Berlin meeting with Macron that he wanted to see Franco-German arms projects speeded up. Besides FCAS, work appears to have ground virtually to a halt on a joint project for a main ground combat system (MGCS), comprising a heavy tank and unmanned land systems to replace the Leclerc and Leopard 2 tanks by 2040.

Macron had earlier that day given a keynote speech in Strasbourg, calling for creating a broad “European political community” to boost defense and security beyond the 27 member states of the European Union, and renewed that call in Berlin.

France and Germany are due to hold a ministerial summit meeting in the latter half of July, and the FCAS project is expected to be among the subjects on the table.

The Government Counts

At the La Tribune conference, Trappier said the FCAS project was not a concern solely for Dassault, but also for the French government and other companies on the project. It was not clear there was a plan B within FCAS, he said, but it was certain Dassault had its own plan B distinct from the Franco-German FCAS project. “Is there a plan B independent of FCAS while meeting the aims of FCAS, namely a large scale system which is interoperable with European services and Nato and the U.S?” he said. “Then the answer, naturally, is ‘yes.’”

A company needs to prepare for the unexpected, he said, and Dassault is working on upgrades of the Rafale, which has at least another 50 years of service. Barre told May 4 the senate committee France was pursuing an upgrade of the Rafale to an F5 standard to 2035, when asked what would happen if the FCAS problem failed to be solved.

Scholz’s predecessor, Angela Merkel, and Macron announced the FCAS project in 2017, seen then as a response to the U.K. voting in favor of the Brexit vote to leave the European Union. The fighter jet is the first pillar in FCAS, with Dassault assigned lead partner on the fighter. The other six pillars are the engine, remote carriers, combat cloud for network communications, simulator labs, sensors, and stealth.

Barre heads the DGA, which places orders and manages arms programs for the services, and leads the state-backed export drive for French weapons around the world. The budget for phase 1B on the demonstrator is reported to be €3.6 billion ($3.9 billion), followed by phase 2 worth €5 billion, with the demonstrator due to fly in 2027. The total budget is estimated to be some €80 billion, requiring international cooperation.

The French, German and Spanish governments signed a cooperation agreement Aug. 30 last year, and the industrial partners were expected to sign their contracts after that. Companies have signed contracts on the six other industrial pillars, with the fighter contract awaiting signature by Airbus.