Two parallel efforts to develop Europe’s next-generation fighter jets are making progress. One of them, however, looks like it is stalling, caught in a spat between participants and political realities.
The European defence market is looking forward to two sixth-generation aircraft programmes – the Franco-German-Spanish Future Combat Aircraft System (FCAS) and the British-led Tempest fighter project together with Italy and Sweden.
To date, the programmes haven’t been seen as mutually exclusive, but experts say it would be hard for Europe to afford more than one sixth-generation aircraft in the current industry environment and that any convergence between the two initiatives would benefit the European defence industry.
Airbus and Dassault are the two main contractors for the programme, with the share of work to be equally divided between partner nations France, Germany, and Spain.
While Paris and Berlin want to see a prototype take flight in around 2026, the new fighter jet is only expected to take to the skies from 2040, with a view to replacing the French Rafale and Germany’s Eurofighter Typhoon.
Participants were meant to move forward with the next development phase this summer, but complaints about an unfair division of labour, disagreements over leadership, and patents for the new technology, mainly between Paris and Berlin, have soured relations.
Some Germans think the French want to build a French aeroplane with German money, while some French think the Germans want to steal trade secrets and build a weapon of their own, according to Airbus officials.
“There is no Plan B,” Dirk Hoke, the CEO of Airbus’ defence division, told a hearing of the French Senate’s defence committee in mid-March.
“Any other solution would be much less favourable for everyone,” he added.
Spain has tried to mediate, proposing more inclusive participation between specialists and industry representatives of all three participating countries. Madrid, who joined a bit later, hopes that FCAS will give the Spanish aviation industry a powerful boost.
However, French industry is hesitating amid concern over the reliability of Spain’s left-wing government and the fact that military spending is even less popular in Madrid than in Berlin.
The project might face even more political problems soon. Both Germany and France face elections soon, with a change of government on either side potentially prompting the programme to stall.
“From a Green perspective, FCAS already has two strikes against it: armed drones and nuclear weapons,” Rafael Loss, coordinator for pan-European data projects at the European Council of Foreign Relations (ECFR) said.
For the Greens, as for the Social Democrats (SPD), autonomous weapons are a big no, Loss added, with both parties considering today’s remotely piloted armed drones as only one step removed from tomorrow’s fully autonomous weapon systems.
The future of the FCAS fighter jet will likely lie with the German Greens, who – if they manage to enter into a government coalition after the September election – could demand an end to the Franco-German project, some analysts believe.
That suspicion was strengthened by the Greens’ recently released election programme, which does not mention European military projects once, despite having elaborated on the subject in previous editions.
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