Ahead of a separate piece reminding of the very important virtues of the NATO alliance over the next week I will today comment on the announcement made last Friday that France and Germany intend to cooperate on the design and development of new manned military fighter aircraft capability.
While my initial reaction was one of surprise, particularly given that the French economy can hardly be said to be buoyant and also that Germany, a country that has had far less interest in developing military aircraft than France, is facing an election, timing of the announcement apart, I suppose that overall, I am not that surprised.
Is this a kick in the teeth for the UK, punishment for Brexit if you like? Maybe it is and it was certainly meant to sound like this but, assuming it does go ahead at some point in the future, I wouldn’t rule out UK companies playing a considerable role. More importantly, have French and German voters been told of the cost?
Even so, while any signal that Germany and France intend to cooperate on an air power related development, seemingly without Britain being asked to be a partner, sends an important signal that should not be ignored by UK lawmakers, the announcement by French Prime Minister, Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor, Angela Merkel causes me far less concern than you might imagine. Why?
Firstly because we need to put this into context of what we ourselves are already doing in respect of joint military aircraft developments with NATO allied partners such as the Anglo-French unmanned combat aircraft on which BAE Systems is working with Dassault. In addition the UK now has an established military aircraft development partnership with Turkey in which BAE Systems, along with other important UK companies such as Rolls-Royce, are working with Turkey to develop a next generation military jet.
The UK and French Governments, along with their respective defence industrial giants, have enjoyed a long and very successful history of military aircraft collaboration over the past fifty years. Non-military aircraft programme partnerships have included the Anglo/French Concorde awhile military aircraft programmes have included the highly successful SEPECAT Jaguar attack aircraft programme. The UL and France work more closely together in defence than perhaps any other area and this includes UK military support being provided by Britain to France in respect of transport aircraft and other logistics capability.
The UK Government together with BAE Systems also have a very long history of successful collaboration on military fast jet aircraft programmes with various other NATO allied countries such as Italy and Germany and on which the combined efforts led to the development of the swing-wing multirole Panavia Tornado combat aircraft and more recently, the four nation Eurofighter Typhoon that with the addition of Spain continues to produce this world leading military fast jet capability.
There is as yet little more than a stated intention by France and Germany to cooperate on the design and development of a new military jet aircraft to eventually replace the French Air Force fleet of Rafale aircraft and the German fleet of Panavia Tornado aircraft. Given the cost and risk involved, the long standing reluctance of Germany to spend more on defence than is deemed to be absolutely necessary together with long standing political hostility to defence spending and with the new French government now seeking to cut the defence budget even further ahead of the promise of raising it from 2018, it would seem a rather strange time for either country to announce cooperation of a new ‘European’ military aircraft development.
Note too that this very morning that having said that he could no longer guarantee the durability of France’s army model, one that he had considered necessary to ensure France’s protection, that military chief, General Pierre de Villiers, has chosen to resign. Furious over the intention by President Macron to cut the military budget by Euro 850 million in 2017 and which would require new equipment orders to be pushed back or scrapped altogether and with the defence budget being required to take on the estimated EUR1.3 billion of cost of international deployments by members of the French armed forces, the notion of pouring new money into a military aircraft development programme would appear to be at odds with budget realities.
Whilst it is true that France has pledged to eventually be spending 2% of its GDP on defence by 2025 (this requiring the current defence budget to rise from a current EUR33 billion to EUR50 billion) the reality of this being achieved is very unlikely. President Macron appears more determined than any of his predecessors to balance the books and cut public spending. Whilst it is true that defence is deemed by the French Government to be a higher priority than say defence is seen by the British Government, it seems to me that in respect of short to medium term defence spending the outlook is that in respect of spending on defence as a proportion of GDP, France could slip below its current 1.77%.
Germany has also promised to raise spending on defence above the current 1.2% level and reach 2% of GDP by 2025/6. Again, given the hostility of German people to see its politicians spend a penny more on defence than is deemed appropriate, achieving such a promise also seems unlikely. On top of all this and driven by political desire is the hope that at some point Germany and France will together lead the creation of EU wide defence, in other words, just as the EU has driven forward economic and political union, so might it also lead to the creation of EU Defence. This is a separate subject that, along with one that stresses the vital importance of NATO, I will be writing on over the coming weeks.
Having been asked the question as to whether the new found French/German intention to create a new military jet will damage arrangement that Britain has with France such as creation and moving forward with an unmanned military aircraft development and that emanated from the Lancaster House agreement, all that I can say is that I do not believe the Macron/Merkel plan will impact on this project at all.
Some have suggested that the Macron/Merkel military aircraft development plan is already ‘too big to fall’ but I disagree. Defence cooperation between Germany and France is littered with failures. That said, we are in no position to be complacent and we might do as well to look at what others in Europe are seeking to do longer term and ensuring that we play a part in that. If we get it right, Turkey could be every much as large and maybe, even larger than what France and Germany have proposed.
Whatever the two big continental European nations seek to do in respect of developing a fifth generation jet I suspect that it will take double the length of time imagined to stand the programme up let alone see any result. Whether Germany and France possess the all the necessary IP that is required is also open to doubt and this questions whether there may need to be a very separated from of ITAR put in place!
CHW (London – 198th July 2017)
Howard Wheeldon FRAeS
Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd,
M: +44 7710 779785