Five years after the announcement of this Franco-German program, on July 13, 2017, the disagreements between Dassault and Airbus have put this program in serious danger, despite the good will of the French authorities.
On June 28, the CEO of Dassault-Aviation, Eric Trappier, celebrated in Merignac, where a Dassault factory is located, the memory of 79 workers of the SNCASO (the ancestor of the company) who were killed by the Germans during the Occupation, for acts of resistance. The speech delivered by Mr. Trappier was a double meaning one with one key-word: resistance. Celebrating the Resistance of the past was an echo to the current resistance of Dassault today in the FCAS project. His words, carefully chosen, were directed to both French and German decision-makers: “We refuse subjection and we put our spirit of resistance at the service of our country. It's a major feature of our corporate culture,” said Eric Trappier.
In the best-case scenario, if “phase 1B” finally proceeds, the New-Generation Fighter demonstrator could fly in 2028 for operational commissioning towards the end of the 2040s. But, so far, the project is stuck by divergences from both sides, a situation highlighted by the fact that no Dassault engineer is currently working on this program.
On the contrary, the two industrial partners, Dassault-Aviation for France and Airbus Defense and Space for Germany and Spain, exchanged bittersweet words.
Interviewed by Les Echos (June, 15) the German boss of Airbus D&S, Michael Schöllhorn, a former pilot, spoke of a “divergence of interpretation between us and Dassault on the way of carrying out a real industrial cooperation. If Dassault wants to direct the two key files of stealth and agility, without consulting us, it's no.”
As early as in March, Mr. Trappier mentioned, on BFM business radio, the existence of a “plan B” in the event of a collapse of the FCAS.
Why such a situation?
According to the initial political agreement, Dassault is the prime contractor and, as such, wants to keep a tight hold on all the levers to avoid delays, cost-overruns and under-performance.
Airbus and Dassault come from different worlds. While Airbus has never designed, developed and produced a fighter on its own, and has always acted as a partner, Dassault has on the contrary always built aircraft on its own and so sees everyone else as a supplier.
The A400M program has already shed the light of the inability of Airbus to lead a program of transport aircraft: painting a commercial aircraft olive green cannot transform it into a military plane. Airbus criticizes the ‘command and control’ governance culture of Dassault, but forgets that it behaves exactly the same way with its numerous suppliers in the commercial business. It is also the clear leader of the Eurodrone program, in which Dassault is confined to a subcontractor role. Beyond the cultural differences, this is a key issue for the FCAS/NGF governance.
This should not surprise anyone: the attitude of Airbus corresponds to the behaviour of its political authorities: defending its leadership and questioning the French one, while reinforcing the German & U.S operational ties in the air combat domain.
This German way of co-operating is also on move in the very details of the projects. Airbus questions the intellectual property (i.e, the background or the technological legacy) rights of Dassault and demands a complete access to them so as to fully understand the technological choices of its ‘partner’; it also wants a participation in key aeras of the NGF: flight controls and stealth, considered the very core of the project.
Dassault responds that despite some skills, Airbus has an inferior technological and operational legacy and, therefore, cannot demand to co-manage these areas along with Dassault.
More than a symbol, government and industry partners have not even managed to agree on the name of the NGF…
All these developments point to a road-exit of the FCAS: the sooner, the better, to avoid to fully destroy what remains of bilateral co-operation.
Plan Bs do exist in both countries.
Germany could either order additional F-35s and, in parallel, join the Tempest with UK, Sweden and Italy. The newly-published German MoD report on procurement programs and their performance has, for the first time, revealed this option: with the signing of IA3, “the way has been opened for the continuation of the project. Disagreements between manufacturers – in particular between Dassault Aviation and Airbus – are delaying the start of the next phase (technological maturation). If no agreement that satisfies the interests of the three nations for equal participation can be found, further cooperation will be questionable”.
France could opt for various solutions: a heavy Rafale along with the nEURon, while waiting to develop a space fighter with disruptive technologies, the future domain of air supremacy.
As Dassault’s Trappier said: “At some point, you have to know whether you can start or if you can't! [...] Cooperation can be better if it's effective, but if it's to cost more and be less effective, then going it alone is nothing to be ashamed of!”.
Click here for Part 1 of this story.