25 Jul 22. Born in joy, died in indifference: will this be the fate of the Future Combat Air Systems (FCAS)?
Over the five years between July 13, 2017 to July 13, 2022, the FCAS has not landed, but has crashed, taking all German-French co-operation with it. A brief flash-back is needed to understand why. The roadmap launched on July 13, 2017 was drafted by a select few, and neither the procurement agencies nor industry were kept in the loop of this major U-turn. From the start, both in France and in Germany, the key actors of defense co-operation were not been consulted. It was a huge mistake. The swing from a structured defence cooperation with the United Kingdom to a similar cooperation with Germany was not obvious, and would have required substantive consultation from both sides to avoid the policy of ‘fait accompli’ based on political wishes, and not on common interests.
Common interest is what had always been absent from any bilateral co-operation.
Neither Berlin nor Paris has the same military doctrine: France has adopted the Blitzkrieg outside NATO, when Germany was and is still happy with the Sitzkrieg inside NATO, where its army is a major part of its European pilar along with UK and Italy. From this major divergence, everything follows: France wants combat capabilities as output of the FCAS and the MGCS (Main Ground Combat System), where Germany only looks after technological and industrial skills. The so-called ‘balanced roadmap’ and the task- and burden-sharing, were also failing from the start. Germany had ambitious plans in the aerospace sector when France had serious assets in the Land systems. Similarly, Airbus had no intention of staying in the FCAS as a sleeping partner, and neither did Nexter in the MGCS.
But this could have been overcome if Germany had behaved as a reliable partner in the all dimensions of defence co-operation.
The first snag to co-operation was made by Germany in December 2017 when it awarded a €400m order to OHB for two optical satellites, breaking also the Schwerin agreements (2008) where France was leader in such a capability when Germany leaded the radar capacity. To make it worse, Germany launched its intelligence satellites with SpaceX instead of Europe’s Arianespace. The second snag was given in 2019, when German decided to order the P-8 Poseidon instead of agreeing to the French solution of an Atlantique 2 lease, as a gap-filler solution until the future Maritime Air Weapon System (MAWS) entered service. After having imposed Hensoldt as the leader of the project, whereas in Europe only Dassault and Thales have the capabilities to design and produce such a sophisticated aircraft, Germany simply pulled out, and instead purchased an American platform with no regards to a French second-hand option.
In 2018, Germany put the co-operation further in jeopardy in blocking weapon exports to key French customers (Saudi Arabia, UAE, Qatar and Egypt); by implementing a selfish arms export policy of its own, Germany killed off any commercial prospects of all bilateral projects.
In June 2019, the Bundestag, largely influenced by Rheinmetall, imposed on the Government (by letter and a vote) the integration of the Düsseldorf company into the MGCS, and directed that FCAS, rapidly mastered by France, should progress in parallel to MGCS under German leadership.
In other words: Germany rejected parity, imposed a new partner on KNDS and threatened to slow down the FCAS if the MGCS did not progress well.
In 2022, the new coalition decided to go all American. The new coalition at the wheel made the political choice of the F-35 to pursue NATO’s nuclear-sharing mission: the decision was logical, but the size of the order (35 and 18 as initially planned) is huge enough to become the future backbone of the Luftwaffe if the FCAS crashes.
Mrs. Merkel’s Cabinet in May 2018 fired the then commander of the German Air Force for having publicly supported the F-35 in November 2017). Note that the decision to purchase the American stealth fighter was taken BEFORE the famous “Zeitenwende”.
This decision was all but not the only one. The decision has been quickly made to order 60 CH-47F from Boeing, along with a Patriot upgrade. At the same time, Germany confirmed its refusal to enter into the Tiger Mk. III major upgrade program, killing one of the most emblematic bilateral projects with France.
All these negative decisions taken by Germany have been strangely endured by French authorities (by the Elysée Palace, the MoD and the DGA) without any single official criticism.