Why Europe’s largest armaments project is failing

DThe future of Future Combat Air Systems (FCAS) remains uncertain – a day after the Bundestag agreed to fund what is estimated to be Europe’s most expensive € 100 billion armaments project. It combines a fighter, a swarm of drones and a battle cloud, Germany, France and Spain decided on it after years of scramble, and in 2040 it was to replace the Eurofighter and Rafale fighters.

But negotiations between the companies involved were deadlocked. Bavaria’s Airbus division, Dassault Aviation of France and Indra Sistemas of Spain agree on six of the seven work packages. But the heart of the FCAS project, the fighter, does not continue. The timetable is uncertain: the “before the summer” agreement, which Airbus chief Michael Schöllhorn outlined in FAZ in February, did not emerge – despite Russia’s attack on Ukraine and the “turning point” announced in Berlin.

Many interests in conflict

The development of the fighter remains at the heart of the negotiations. Airbus and Dassault have agreed that the French will take care of the construction of the fuselage and cockpit, while the German side sets up drones and sets up a data cloud. But there is a great deal of mistrust on both sides. These are patents, jobs and export control.

“We remain confident that we will reach an agreement on FCAS as soon as possible, both industrially and politically,” Bruno Fichefeux, FCAS’s program manager at Airbus, confirmed in an interview with FAZ on Wednesday. It does not deny it, but tugging takes time. As for the fighter, “they still have a different view than Dassault of what collaboration means,” says Fichefeux.

The “main partner” instead of the Dassault supplier – this is how Airbus defines its understanding of the FCAS fighter design. This means in particular flight control and stealth function. The French are given a leading role in the fighter, but are expected to maintain contact with the Germans at these technologically sensitive points. After all, flight control in the Manching area is one of Airbus’s “specializations”.

The French have a different opinion. “The red line is that there is a leader,” said Dassault boss Éric Trappier in March. He announced a partial withdrawal of his engineers from the project – and has sharpened his tone ever since. Trappier did not even publicly rule out failure. In any case, there will be a significant delay: the goal of developing the FCAS by 2040 is no longer realistic, he said at an event in Paris two weeks ago. You have to adapt to 2050.

Business comes first

Trappier did not say how he came to this delay. The head of Dassault refused to talk to the FAZ. The company’s spokesman justified this by the “sensitive political phase” in which France finds itself in the run-up to the parliamentary elections.

In France, Trappier has a reputation as a tough trader. Rafale’s recent export success, built by Dassault, is said to have widened the manager’s chest. His statements are fueled by the political right in France, where the FCAS has always been perceived critically. Berlin’s recent decision to replace part of the Tornado fleet with American F-35 fighters has heightened skepticism that the Germans are closer to the United States than the French.

Air Combat System for Europe: German and French politicians celebrate the launch of the FCAS project in Paris.

Air Combat System for Europe: German and French politicians celebrate the launch of the FCAS project in Paris.

Picture: Picture Alliance

Given the new majority in parliament, no new wind from Paris can be expected for FCAS. Potential FCAS contractors initially hoped that President Emmanuel Macron, who has a majority in parliament, would persuade Dassault to give up and move the project to the home.

It turned out differently. So the ball is still in the hands of companies. The failure of the mammoth project is ruled out by Airbus. “FCAS is just too important,” says Fichefeux, program manager. In addition, one party cannot fund an expensive prestigious project. “There is no alternative to European cooperation between the two leading nations, Germany and France. They must all pull together in the interests of a united Europe,” says Fichefeux.

A topic with the potential for conflict

The danger of failure is great, as history has shown: Dassault has so far proved to be very peculiar in terms of European cooperation. When, for example, the Bundeswehr wanted to equip the Luftwaffe with a modern fighter in 1957, the American manufacturer Lockheed-Martin with its Starfighter and Dassault with its Mirage 3 were shortlisted for the army. However, the French manufacturer absolutely did not want to comply with the German Minister of Defense’s request to relocate parts of production and assembly to German aircraft plants in the event of a contract being awarded. The American rival had no problems with that and was given a chance in the Luftwaffe.

Cooperation between Dassault and the Eurofighter consortium, founded in 1983, developed in a similarly difficult way. In an effort to unify the air force’s equipment in Europe, the French initially participated with Germany, Great Britain and Italy. But Dassault insisted on a special status: He wanted to take over the management of the system in the construction of Eurofighter and a 50 percent share. Because the other partners did not want to meet special requirements, Dassault left the association in 1984 and appointed Mirage’s successor, Rafale. Spain filled a gap in the Eurofighter consortium in 1985.

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