France, Germany launch stalled fighter jet project

France and Germany are ready to move to the next phase of their flagship fighter jet project, reigniting Europe’s largest weapons program and ending a key nuisance in their bilateral relationship.

The two countries and two of the key companies involved, Airbus and Dassault Aviation, are about to formally transition to a crucial phase of the Future Combat Air System project, which will see the construction of the demonstrator jet, according to people familiar with the matter. An agreement could be reached in the coming days, said two of the people, who spoke on condition of anonymity as there are still outstanding issues.

About 3.8 billion euros were planned for this next phase – called “Phase 1b” – and a deadline until the end of last year. But talks stalled after disagreements over how the companies should share intellectual property, the division of labor and the jet’s specifications.

Further complications were recent tensions between France and Germany, which came to light in October when a joint meeting of the French and German cabinets was postponed.

From the proposal for an EU-wide upper limit for the price of gas to gas pipelines to emergency aid programs for people and companies affected by the energy crisis, the two countries are at odds.

Mike Schoellhorn, head of Airbus Defense and Space, signaled on Monday in Berlin as chairman of the German Aerospace Association that the next phase of FCAS is on safer ground. “France and Germany both believe in the importance of FCAS,” he said. “There is no alternative, it has to work.”

FCAS was launched in 2017 by Berlin and Paris with much fanfare and was later complemented by Madrid. It is Europe’s largest defense project. It was designed to strengthen the continent’s strategic autonomy, strengthen political and military ties between its largest economies, and breathe new life into Europe’s aerospace industry.

A 2020 French parliamentary report put the estimated development cost at €8 billion by 2030, but cited forecasts by outside analysts of up to €80 billion.

However, concerns among military and political figures that the project might never take off increased due to disputes between Airbus, which represents Germany in the project, and rival Dassault. There were fights over technology sharing and who would run critical parts of the program.

There was also frustration at the inability of the French and German governments to break through the industrial standstill. “It is Europe’s largest armaments project, and yet the lack of any political support is simply amateurish,” says Christian Mölling, defense expert at the German Society for Foreign Relations.

Paris was also alarmed by Germany’s decision in March to buy 35 American-made F-35 fighter jets, fearing it would mean Berlin FCAS was cooling off or slowing down the development schedule. Germany argued that the F-35s were badly needed to secure its role in NATO’s nuclear sharing system.

FCAS was designed to include a next-generation jet that works seamlessly with drones and is equipped with advanced communications systems. When completed, it could replace fighter jets used by European air forces, such as the Eurofighter, the German Tornado and the French Rafale.

Airbus and Dassault agreed the basics of an agreement on which both companies made concessions just over two weeks ago, people familiar with the discussions said. Dassault was the prime contractor for the demonstrator from the start, but Airbus has challenged some of the fine print on the role assignment. Dassault and Airbus declined to comment on the details of the talks.

The agreement saves FCAS, but only for the prototype phase. The delays mean the delivery of a jet for 2040 is unlikely to be met. Dassault boss Eric Trappier has warned that 2050 is more realistic.

Such a delay could put FCAS at a disadvantage in the race against a competing project, Tempest, which is being developed by the UK and Italy with companies such as BAE Systems and the UK arm of Italy’s Leonardo. Discussions continue with Japan on whether to integrate its FX fighter program into Tempest. France, Germany launch stalled fighter jet project

Adam Bradshaw

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