When German chancellor Angela Merkel and French president Emmanuel Macron unveiled plans for closer defence co-operation between their two countries this month, including the development of Europe’s next generation fighter jet, there was a stark omission: the UK.
Even though Britain is co-operating with France on a €2bn demonstrator for a future generation combat drone, it will not — for now, at least — have any say in early plans for Europe’s newest fighter project. The programme will be “under the direction” of France and Germany.
Britain has long been a key partner on European defence projects, from the Panavia Tornado in the 1970s to the more recent Eurofighter Typhoon fast jet and the A400M military transport aircraft. The need to collaborate and share the costs of big procurement projects has intensified as modern equipment becomes more complex and expensive.
Now, however, its decision to quit the EU — as well as the UK’s increasing propensity to buy kit from the US — has raised questions over its role in future European defence projects.
“The UK is sending massively mixed messages about the importance that it puts on Europe as a whole, but especially in defence,” says Francis Tusa, editor of Defence Analysis, citing the UK’s absence from some recent joint exercises in Europe. “This is leading to more and more countries in Europe saying, ‘well, if you’re not interested, we’ll look to work with those that are’.”
Executives from BAE Systems, which with France’s Dassault Aviation is the lead industrial partner on the drone technology demonstrator — referred to in defence circles as an “FCAS” — are nonchalant about the development.
“We don’t feel threatened by it,” Chris Boardman, BAE’s head of military air, told reporters gathered the following day at the Royal International Air Tatoo at RAF Fairford, the industry’s summer festival of warplane aerobatics. “I would like to see how . . . the concept that France and Germany are talking about matures. One way or other the UK will have an involvement.”
But the question is to what degree, say observers. Will the UK be involved at the all-important planning stages of the project, which shape capabilities, and dictate, in turn, where the expertise and work will be located?
There are also concerns over whether any duplication between the two projects could put the Franco-British collaboration at risk, in particular as both are likely to involve Dassault, which refused to comment.
The FCAS project, combining capabilities on Britain’s Taranis demonstrator and France’s Neuron, is seen by many in the defence sector as critical to sustaining the UK’s competence in high-end aerospace skills and technology. Production of the Eurofighter Typhoon could end unless it wins big orders, while all but one of the air platforms highlighted in the UK’s 2015 defence review are designed and built abroad.
BAE has 15 per cent by value of the UK’s newest fighter — the F-35 — but that is a Lockheed Martin-led programme where the most sophisticated technology has been developed in the US. Without a new indigenous air combat programme, key UK expertise could evaporate, some industry executives warn.
Drawing firm conclusions from the vague declaration last week is difficult. There was no detail on whether the plan was for manned or unmanned aircraft, and no funding was committed.
The British government is sceptical that the Franco-German declaration will amount to much in practice. It views the proposals as expensive, with officials noting that the only commitment is to develop “provisional road maps”.
European defence industry executives and military officials describe it as a “political statement of ambition” rather than a concrete decision to press ahead on a joint programme.
It was motivated as much by a desire to see Franco-German defence collaboration move forward in the wake of Brexit, as by the respective needs of Germany to start thinking about a replacement for its ageing fleet of Tornados and of France, in the longer term, for its Rafale fighters.
“We were asked to input but we didn’t know what was going to happen,” one European executive said of the announcement. It was a surprise even to Airbus, which has been studying next generation aerial combat systems for the German military, when “this actually popped up”, he added.
This has lent weight to those who argue the declaration was an opportunistic attempt to press the UK to commit itself more fully to European defence collaboration post-Brexit.
French officials argue there is no reason for the UK to feel excluded. The FCAS programme was the result of a bilateral treaty signed in 2010, covering a very specific unmanned capability while the German project is about European collaboration, said one. Non-EU members have often participated in European defence procurement programmes, the official said, and France’s desire to continue collaborating with Britain remained strong.
Yet, at a time when almost every western nation is struggling to fund the multibillion-dollar investment required for the most advanced military procurement programmes, the signals being sent by Paris and Berlin were clear, say industry sources.
One continental European industry executive said: “It is about Europe saying, ‘all these follow on programmes, we will do them ourselves.’ No one will say no to the UK [if it wants to join in], but this is clearly going to be Franco-German led.”
Additional reporting by Guy Chazan in Berlin