By Douglas Barrie, Senior Fellow for Military Aerospace
Three decades after a previous joint effort unravelled, France and Germany are again to pursue a collaborative combat-aircraft programme, part of a broader project to reinvigorate European defence cooperation and integration.
The last time Berlin and Paris attempted a combat-aircraft collaboration, London was at the core of the effort, as a key partner in a mid-1980s, five-nation European project. France abandoned participation in 1985 over requirements and industrial-workshare issues, with some in Paris anticipating that Germany would follow suit. Instead, Germany, Italy, Spain and the United Kingdom went on to develop the Eurofighter.
This time, however, it is London’s position that looks the more uncomfortable. The UK decision to leave the European Union, and the possible repercussions of such a move, risks undermining London’s credibility as a potential partner in future European defence programmes.
President Emmanuel Macron and Chancellor Angela Merkel announced the Franco-German project on 13 July, during a joint cabinet meeting in Paris. Spain and Sweden are also possible project partners with talks under way during the first half of 2017 (see Berlin looks to build Future Combat Aircraft System consortium).
The communiqué from the event stated: ’France and Germany agree to develop a European air combat system, under the leadership of the two countries, to replace their current combat aircraft fleets in the long term. The two partners wish to finalise a joint roadmap by mid-2018.’ No further detail was provided.
Germany has already begun to work on a future combat-aircraft project under the banner of the air force’s Next Generation Weapon System/Future Combat Air System (NGWS/FCAS) programme. This is considering options to replace its Tornado ground-attack aircraft around 2035. This work will now feed into the joint programme. The French Air Force may well look to replace its Mirage 2000D aircraft in a similar timeframe. Should the Franco-German combat-aircraft project come to fruition, the type would operate initially alongside each air force’s ’legacy’ platforms, the French Dassault Rafale and the German Eurofighter. In the case of the latter two types, these will likely begin to be replaced sometime during the early 2040s.
The UK’s approach to replacing its combat-aircraft fleet appears somewhat fluid. While the F-35 Lightning II will be a cornerstone of the UK’s future air-power capability, the exact number of airframes and fleet mix has yet to become apparent. As part of the 2010 Anglo-French Defence Treaty, London and Paris are working together on an unmanned combat-air-vehicle (UCAV) demonstrator, but the longer-term future of this project has also yet to be fleshed out. Having concluded in the 2005 Defence Industrial Strategy that a crewed combat aircraft was unlikely to be required beyond the F-35, by 2015 this assumption was being reconsidered.
Airbus Defence and Space has already been working on concept studies that could meet the German NGWS/FCAS requirement, with illustrations showing a twin-engine, twin-fin airframe with low-observable design features. The industrial structure of a Franco-German-led programme could require some negotiation, since the agreement between Berlin and Paris would at face value place Airbus in a strong position.
BAE Systems, which is involved with Dassault on the Anglo-French UCAV demonstrator, also continues to carry out classified research into next-generation combat-aircraft concepts for the UK Ministry of Defence. The British-headquartered company saw off competition from Airbus in securing support work on the Turkish TFX combat-aircraft development project, while further afield the UK and Japan are also examining possible collaboration in the combat-aircraft domain.
Alongside the combat-aircraft tie-up, the Franco-German communiqué also reinforced other areas for increased defence-aerospace cooperation including: examining the potential for a European maritime-patrol aircraft; moving ahead with an intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance medium-altitude long-endurance unmanned aerial vehicle; jointly defining the next standard of the Tiger attack helicopter; and establishing a bi-national C-130J unit from 2021.
While Berlin and Paris will be drawn closer together in terms of overall defence cooperation – should these projects be implemented successfully – the path of London’s European orbit is far less certain.