France and Germany’s collaboration on a future combat aircraft is moving ahead, but Paris and Berlin need to be mindful of past European failures.

Defence ministers from France and Germany. Credit: Getty Images

By Douglas Barrie, Senior Fellow for Military Aerospace

At the 25–29 April Berlin Air Show, the French and German defence ministers described the two nations’ defence-aerospace collaborative ambitions on display as ‘historic’. They are certainly worthy of being considered through the prism of history, even though the light shed is not always flattering.

German Minister of Defence Ursula von der Leyen and Florence Parly, her French counterpart, used the platform of the air show to advance three cooperative development projects, and attempt to place their countries firmly at the centre of European defence-aerospace collaboration. They signed a top-level requirements paper for the Future Combat Air System (FCAS) and a letter of intent on a successor maritime-patrol aircraft, and signalled continuing support for a multinational intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) medium-altitude long-endurance uninhabited air vehicle (MALE UAV). Dassault Aviation and Airbus Defence and Space are the key national industry participants in FCAS and the MALE UAV.

While such Franco-German ambition is laudable, success will be determined by results rather than sentiment. Berlin and Paris have a previous track record concerning combat aircraft, maritime-patrol aircraft and UAV cooperation; failure has as often been the outcome as success.

France and West Germany were involved in the early 1980s European Combat Aircraft project, with Britain the third partner. The upshot of much political and industrial manoeuvring culminated in France leaving what by 1985 had become a five-nation project (the European Fighter Aircraft). Dassault, with French political backing, wanted to be the industry lead, while Paris was unable to reconcile its aircraft-performance requirements with those of its partners. Instead, France developed the Rafale, and its erstwhile partners produced the Eurofighter Typhoon. West Germany also cooperated with France on, and bought, the Breguet Atlantic maritime-patrol aircraft, although not its successor, the Atlantique 2.

In the first decade of this century, France and Germany were the lead nations in the EuroMALE effort to develop an ISR UAV to rival US and Israeli systems. Dassault and the then EADS (now Airbus) were the industry leads, with the UAV anticipated to enter service from 2010. However, the project collapsed in 2006, in part over an inability to agree requirements. Dassault was later to team with BAE Systems in the Telemos consortium for a similar UAV requirement, but British and French politicians decided later to use limited funds to support an uninhabited combat air vehicle project.

In an effort to avoid the stresses that pulled apart the early 1980s European Fighter Aircraft project, Berlin and Paris have agreed a lead-nation approach. France will take on this role for FCAS, while Germany will for the ISR UAV. An outline common-requirements document has also been drawn up by the two countries’ air forces.

The FCAS, however, is not the only military-aircraft project on Berlin’s agenda. Responses to an October 2017 request for information (RFI) on a successor to the German air force’s Tornado ground-attack aircraft were submitted in April. The Typhoon, the F-35A, F-15E and F/A-18E/F were the subjects of the RFI.

Some in the German defence industry paint a selection of the F-35A as a Tornado successor in near apocalyptic terms for the FCAS project. And thinly disguised public advocacy in favour of the F-35 saw the German air force chief, Lt–Gen. Karl Muellner, due to retire in May, with apparently no option to extend by 12 months offered by the government. Airbus Defence and Space CEO Dirk Hoke was quoted in the Welt Am Sonntag newspaper as warning that the selection of the F-35 risked ending cooperation with France almost before it had begun. Of course, Airbus, as one of the three industry partners in the Eurofighter consortium, is also in the Tornado successor fight.

The German air force may acquire up to 90 combat aircraft to replace the Tornado, the withdrawal of which is set to begin in 2025, with all aircraft out of service by 2030. FCAS is not anticipated as entering service until 2040. The Tornado is declared to NATO in the Dual Capable Aircraft role, and the successor type will, unless Berlin decides otherwise, also be tasked with the nuclear-delivery role. Integration of the US B61-12 freefall nuclear bomb on the Typhoon is entirely feasible, but would cost in the order of €500 million (about US$620m) and could take up to seven years.

The B61-12 is already being integrated on the F-35A. In delivering a freefall nuclear weapon, the US aircraft’s low-observable features offer a better chance of success, and therefore arguably a more credible deterrent. This would not preclude Germany buying more Typhoon aircraft for most of the other roles now met by the Tornado. Indeed, such a split buy would likely favour the Typhoon in terms of numbers. Were this to be the case, the German air force would operate a mixed fleet of F-35s and Typhoons, like two other Eurofighter partners, Italy and the United Kingdom.

While Berlin and London took part in Europe’s two previous multinational combat-aircraft projects, Tornado and Eurofighter Typhoon, the UK remains outside the latest round of cooperation. The British government’s pre-occupation with the process of leaving the European Union, the strain on relations with other European countries and tensions in some areas of Anglo-French cooperation within the Lancaster House framework, make any near-term shift difficult. France has indicated it would ‘consider’ letting the UK join, while Germany could be more accommodating. Meanwhile, London is also in the process of working on a Combat Air Strategy that should set out at least the UK’s broad ambitions in this area. Berlin and Paris have also indicated they are interested in others joining the FCAS, at the right time.

That Europe needs to develop crewed combat aircraft and other supporting capabilities to sustain its industry beyond the mature, fourth-generation designs now being built is not in debate. The Franco-German FCAS is the latest iteration of national and industrial alliances that will shape Europe’s defence-aerospace future, but it is unlikely to be the last.


This analysis originally featured on the IISS Military Balance+, the online database that provides indispensable information and analysis for users in government, the armed forces, the private sector, academia, the media and more. Customise, view, compare and download data instantly, anywhere, anytime.

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