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Luftwaffe Panavia Tornado

UK Prospects for the New Franco–German Fighter

Justin Bronk
Commentary, 31 July 2017
Aerospace, Germany, France, Europe
The announcement by German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron that their countries intend to cooperate in producing a new fighter aircraft has sparked great interest in UK defence and industrial circles. However, how significant is this as a ‘hard’ defence initiative?

On the face of it, both France and Germany are natural partners for developing a new combat aircraft; neither has committed to the US-led F-35 programme, although both possess an advanced civil and military aviation industry base in Dassault, Premium AEROTEC and Airbus.

They also have a common need to augment late fourth-generation fighter fleets in the shape of the Eurofighter and Rafale, and more urgently to replace the ageing Panavia Tornado in Luftwaffe service and Dassault Mirage 2000 in the Armée de l’Air.

Furthermore, both France and, to a lesser extent, Germany see the maintenance of a modern defence industrial capability as important for national security. Therefore, there is an imperative to develop a new combat aircraft if the ability to do so is not to be lost when the Rafale and Eurofighter production lines shut down in the 2020s.

Seen from this angle, France and Germany do have compelling reasons to cooperate on developing a new combat aircraft.

However, looking more closely at French and German concepts of tactical airpower, there may well be significant amounts of friction in terms of requirements-setting and design priorities long before the usual issues of costs and delays during procurement that have traditionally bedevilled European aviation cooperative endeavours enter the equation.

For a start, France maintains a fundamentally expeditionary ethos around the employment of armed forces in the national interest, as evidenced by the country’s eager participation in the opening phases of operations against Libyan forces in 2011 and its ongoing deployments to Mali and South Sudan .

This is very likely to shape French requirements for a next-generation combat aircraft; the demand will be for a significant range without mid-air refuelling, the ability to operate against high-end air defences and carry significant strike payloads and associated sensor capabilities.

By contrast, the Luftwaffe remains an overwhelmingly defensive force, seldom employed for kinetic strikes in expeditionary operations, but often tasked with air policing duties both in Germany itself and also on behalf of smaller NATO allies.

This is likely to skew German requirements towards air defence capabilities and interoperability with NATO allies at the expense of priorities for strike weight, sensors and unrefuelled range.

The Eurofighter programme itself attests to the potential for differing strategic priorities to disrupt common aircraft development. France dropped out of the consortium due to irreconcilable design priorities while German disagreements on upgrade priorities proved a major source of delays throughout the aircraft’s service life.

A critical factor in whether the statement of intent earlier this month by German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron to develop a joint fighter will be whether they can convince other smaller industrial players, notably Saab but also CASA and Leonardo, to join them.

If they can, then while the issues surrounding mission priorities would remain, the customer base might be suitably large enough to give the project some chances of success. However, if  it remains a purely Franco–German effort, then the capability and maturity of the F-35 by the time that a solid programme might emerge in the early-to-mid 2020s, coupled with the inevitably falling costs of the economies of scale from which the global F-35 orders will benefit may well conspire to make the new fighter economically untenable.

Certainly, if the A-400M and Eurocopter Tiger are anything to go by, recent European defence aviation projects have tended to be uncompetitive on the export market compared to their American counterparts.

For the UK – a traditional partner in aircraft development efforts with both France and Germany with programmes such as the Anglo-French SEPECAT Jaguar and Anglo–German and Italian Panavia Tornado – the Franco-German announcement has been received by many as a snub and as evidence of the isolating consequences of Brexit.

While there may be an element of truth in this, if the UK is to take any lesson from the Merkel–Macron announcement, it should be that this is the inevitable consequence of placing our national bets so heavily on the success of the US-led F-35 programme.

The UK Ministry of Defence is still insisting that it stands by an eventual purchase of 138 F-35s, but faces an underfunded equipment programme and flagging national economic growth that could place further pressures on defence spending.

As a result, unless something major changes, there is unlikely to be space in the equipment programme for the UK to be sufficiently involved in the development and procurement of a new European fighter aircraft during the 2020s.

The RAF and Royal Navy will still be trying to find headspace to afford sufficient F-35s alongside all the other inevitable competing requirements of defence.

For those who lament the UK’s lack of involvement in what could conceivably be Europe’s last indigenous combat aircraft, Brexit plays a role, but lack of money and a huge F-35 commitment are the key isolating drivers for Britain in this case. 

Banner image: A Luftwaffe Panavia Tornado. A joint Franco–German fighter would take its place … if it ever gets off the ground. Courtesy of Jerry Gunner/Wikimedia.

 

Author

Justin Bronk
Research Fellow, Airpower and Technology

Justin Bronk is a Research Fellow specialising in combat airpower and technology in the Military Sciences team at RUSI. He is also... read more

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