PARIS --- European allies have been prompting Germany to lift its export ban on Saudi Arabia for several months, but to no avail, so it’s time to take this state of affairs to its logical conclusion, and to change tack before contracts are signed at June’s Paris Air Show that would set the status quo in concrete.
When French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel announced in July 2017 that their countries would together develop a next-generation combat aircraft, no-one was more surprised than the British government.
Since the Lancaster House treaties of 2010, France had thrown its defense lot in with Great Britain, and after surviving the failure of several projects – joint aircraft carrier procurement, cross-procurement of armored vehicles and UAVs, etc. – their cooperation had coalesced around unmanned aircraft.
This was a return to the origins of European defense cooperation, which began in earnest when France and the UK decided in the 1960s to develop the Jaguar light attack jet / training aircraft and the Anglo-French family of Gazelle, Lynx and Puma helicopters, which went a long way to establish Europe’s helicopter industry.
Britain and France decided to jointly develop a combat drone and a MALE reconnaissance drone, and initial studies were commissioned, and were progressing nicely until early 2017, when the British explained to the French that they no longer had the cash to launch both projects.
This was also when Macron, newly elected on a pro-European platform and thus ideologically opposed to a Brexiting Britain, hastily – perhaps too hastily -- decided to turn to France’s other defense cooperation partner, Germany.
Thus, the two agreements announced in July 2017 and reaffirmed at the Berlin Airshow last April: the development of a New-Generation Fighter (NGF) by Dassault Aviation, as part of an integrated Future Combat Air System (FCAS) to be developed by Airbus Defence & Space.
Germany’s government coalition upsets the apple cart
What Macron and Merkel could not imagine is that, following a bad showing at the September 2017 elections, Merkel’s conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) would be forced to form a coalition government with the leftist Social Democratic Party (SPD).
Even more unimaginable was the SPD’s restriction – first informal, and later official - of German arms exports to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, first to impede both countries’ aggressive involvement in the Yemen civil war, and then in retaliation for the brutal murder of Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi Arabia.
This embargo had a collateral effect of stopping exports to those two countries of any European-built weapon which included German-made parts or components, of which there are many.
Despite private and public calls from German industry and from European allies, notably France, Italy and the UK, to end the export freeze the German government seems gridlocked, and incapable of agreeing on an arms export policy that meets its main international obligations: the 2006 EU treaty on arms exports and the 1971 Schmidt-Debré bilateral agreement with France.
While of immediate concern for those allies whose export deliveries it is blocking because their products include German parts or components, Germany’s inability to work out this contentious issue raises fundamental questions whether it can still be a reliable partner for Europe’s defense industry.
Clearly, the answer is that it cannot.
The toothpaste is out of the tube, and the entire world has seen it
Having demonstrated that it is perfectly capable of disregarding contracts, regulations and international agreements at the whim of one of its senior politicians – in this case, SPD chief Andrea Nahles – and given the German public’s strong opposition to all things military, and especially to arms exports, no sensible European government should risk spending billions of euros to develop weapons whose exportability depended on the whim of the German government of the day.
And, as the SPD as well as many Germans oppose selling weapons – and providing spares and support – to countries that are at war, foreign customers will think twice before buying German weapons, or weapons of which Germany makes parts, lest they be deprived of spares and support when they most need them. This could threaten the very existence of Germany’s defense industry.
In the past, disagreements about export between partners were worked out because a common solution was in everybody’s interests. Now, however, the SPD has demonstrated that it cares more about implementing its own policies and pushing its parochial interests than about the interests of German and European industry.
And it’s not as though there has been no opportunity to find a solution: since October, there have been several highly-publicized meetings between German officials and their British and French counterparts, all of which failed to solve the problem.
An industrial silver lining?
While the French and Germany industrial bases have the technological know-how to design and develop combat aircraft, their subsystems and their weapons, there is a an area where their capabilities are more limited: fast jet engines.
The French-German agreement on FCAS / FSAF calls for Snecma and MTU Aero to develop together the Next-Generation Fighter’s engine, but some observers doubt that these two companies can develop it alone.
Snecma designed Rafale’s M-88 engine, and France’s insistence on having a domestically-designed engine was one of the reasons it left the European Fighter Aircraft project in 1985 and instead developed Rafale – but this was 34 years ago.
Today’s Snecma, however, is far different from what it was back then, while MTU Aero is principally involved in MRO of military engines.
Snecma, now Safran, has become a hugely successful company by producing very large numbers of CFM-56 engines for commercial airplanes in cooperation with General Electric, and is perforce more focused on production than on development.
Since it entered service in 1982, more than 32,000 CFM56s have been delivered, and over 14,000 improved LEAP variants have been ordered. Over 2,000 of these engines are produced each year, and generate most of Snecma’s sales and profit, so there is little motivation to develop new military engines in an international market that needs fewer than 100 each year.
So Snecma has not developed an engine since the M-88, and its latest attempt to develop one was the ill-fated Silvercrest, designed to power Dassault’s 5X. The program was first delayed by several years, and when Dassault eventually terminated the contract in December 2017 for non-performance, Safran has paid $280 million in compensation.
Europe’s most experienced maker of military engines remains Rolls-Royce plc, which designed the RB-199 which powers the three-nation Tornado, and Eurofighter’s EJ-200 engine is based on Rolls-Royce’s XG-40 technology demonstrator. Rolls-Royce engines have given a good account of themselves, and currently power most of the European-produced combat aircraft in service.
Clearly, given this experience, an alliance of Rolls-Royce and Snecma is more likely to produce the NGT’s engine than a Snecma-MTU pairing.
Back to the future?
Given Germany’s fluctuating position on arms exports, France would be taking an unreasonable risk by persisting in its alliance with Germany to develop its next generation of weapons, especially as its cost is so high that it would be impossible to backtrack once it had committed financially.
The same argument regarding export also holds for the other bilateral programs ready to be launched, including the next-generation tank, the future maritime patrol aircraft, the European MALE drone and others. And after Angela Merkel’s imminent retirement from the German political scene, no-one knows where the new CDU of Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer stands on defense, defense spending and weapons exports.
Given that France and the UK share the same pragmatic approach to arms exports, have been working to train their militaries to work together for a decade, and have a similarly supportive approach to their defense industries, they are more compatible partners to develop future weapons.
Brexit is no obstacle: Jaguar, the Anglo-French helicopters and Concorde were all developed while the UK was not a member of the European Community, and there is no reason at all why exiting the European Union – if it ever does – should prevent the UK from developing weapons jointly with France.
Furthermore, the British government announced last July that it was already working to develop Tempest, its own next-gen fighter to compensate the F-35’s shortcomings and, eventually, replace the Typhoon. It also says it has the money – at least £5 billion for initial work.
F-35 is the fly in the ointment
Britain’s participation in the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program is a much bigger obstacle to Anglo-French cooperation on future weapons than Brexit. Britain is the program’s main non-US partner, and produces about 15% by value of every F-35 built world-wide.
This could be just a political issue, as it looks increasingly likely that London will not order the 90 F-35As it said it would, given the aircraft’s technical shortcomings, its high price and its astronomical operating costs – not to mention the cost of the Block 4 upgrade – and which the UK cannot afford anyway, given its current long-term funding plans.
The issue here is primarily one of protecting FCAS data from leaking to the United States via BAE Systems and Rolls-Royce, and it would require a Chinese Wall of massive proportion to keep the two programs meticulously separate. But, as the Chinese demonstrated many centuries ago, walls of even gigantic proportions can be built as long as there’s a will.