How Europe’s largest armaments project could fail

DNegotiations on the Future Combat Air System (FCAS), a project designed to unify fighter jets, drone swarms and Combat Cloud, are stalling. While the political agreement between Germany, France and Spain has now been in place for more than a year, the industrial companies involved, Airbus (whose armaments division is based in Germany) and Dassault Aviation (which is based in Saint-Cloud near Paris), remain at odds. They still cannot agree on a division of labor in the development of the heart of the project, a so-called sixth-generation fighter jet. With total costs estimated at 100 billion euros, FCAS is the most expensive European armaments project of all time.

Éric Trappier, Chairman of the Board of Directors of Dassault, which is currently building the Rafale fighter jet, made it clear at his company’s semi-annual conference on Wednesday evening that the knot would have to be cut in the coming months – or FCAS would have failed. “Until the end of the year” he still gives the negotiations time, said Trappier. This should not be taken as an ultimatum. But you have already lost three years compared to the original schedule and cannot go on like this forever. “Our Plan A is FCAS,” said the Dassault boss. As with all industrial projects, however, we are of course working on a “Plan B”. Trappier didn’t want to go into detail about this.

Cooperation without alternative

Guillaume Faury, CEO of Airbus, which is currently building the Eurofighter fighter jet, also spoke of FCAS as “Plan A” at the Farnborough Air Show on Wednesday. But he also indicated to the Reuters news agency that he was thinking about “other options”. Faury did not explain what that meant, nor did Trappier. So far, Airbus has always said that a failure of FCAS is unthinkable. “There is no alternative to European cooperation between the two leading nations Germany and France, they must pull together in the interests of a united Europe,” said the FCAS program manager at Airbus, Bruno Fichefeux, to the FAZ in June.

Cooperation with the Germans is possible, emphasized Dassault boss Trappier. But they would have to concede the role of “leader” to the French for fighter jet development and be satisfied with the role of “subcontractor”. “Once that’s settled, there’s no problem,” Trappier said. Such a division of labor is part of everyday life in all projects in aircraft construction – including the recently sealed Eurodrones project. There, on the other hand, Airbus has the hat on, and one has subordinated itself as a supplier, said Trappier. There is also such a division of labor in the FCAS rival project Tempest. Developed under the leadership of the British armaments group BAE Systems, the government in London this week confirmed its willingness to build the Tempest fighter jet.

In addition to Saab from Sweden and Leonardo from Italy, Mitsubishi from Japan is now also considering joining. Tempest is still being negotiated. But while FCAS is supposed to have a demonstrator as a military training device in 2027, Tempest is supposed to take off in 2025. The completion of the final sixth-generation fighter jet is scheduled for 2035 in the Tempest project – while FCAS has always calculated with the year 2040. If you follow Dassault boss Trappier, even this date can hardly be kept due to the stagnant negotiations.

skepticism in the Department of Defense

After the summer break, there could be a final boost in the FCAS negotiations, both Airbus and Dassault have said. According to industry circles, only tailwind from politics could possibly bring the deadlocked negotiations to the home straight. According to information from the FAZ, French President Emmanuel Macron and Chancellor Olaf Scholz discussed the topic at their dinner in Paris in early July.

Previously there had been rather skeptical signals from Berlin. The most recent armaments report from the Federal Ministry of Defense states: “The discrepancies between the industries – here in particular between Dassault Aviation and Airbus – lead to a delay in the start of the next phase (…). If no agreement can still be found that meets the interests of all three nations in terms of participation on an equal footing, the continuation of the cooperation must be questioned.”


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