This is the ‘opinion’ piece by Dirk Hoke, CEO of Airbus Defence and Space, published by the German newsletter Griephan on Nov. 3. (The first paragraph was cut by Griephan—Ed).
In terms of European policy, we Germans are presently in a comfortable yet demanding situation at one and the same time: with President Macron, not only do we have a potential partner in France for the reform of Europe. We are – as can be clearly inferred from his statements – his preferred candidate for this role. On the other hand, this also means that we are under pressure to act. If we indeed want to take the hand extended to us by France, which would no doubt be advisable for the future of Europe, then words must now be followed by deeds.
The aerospace industry pricked up its collective ears when the Franco-German government summit in July included a list of specific projects in its final declaration, one of them being the agreement on the joint development of the next-generation fighter aircraft.
This project is of paramount importance for the future and competitiveness of Europe's military aircraft industry. The air forces of both France and Germany are already on the lookout for suitable successors to their Tornado, Eurofighter and Rafale aircraft types. Other countries, such as Spain, Belgium and Italy, have shown interest in the project with a view to the future viability of their fleets.
To date, the countries of Europe have indulged in expensive customised national solutions or have made their means of national defence dependent on the USA. Neither strategy is a viable option for the future. Firstly, particularism is no longer conceivable or affordable in light of the huge increase in technical requirements that such combat aircraft systems now have to meet. Which would then leave us having to buy American systems. Certainly, the latest aircraft types, such as the F-35, set pulses racing among jet pilots and the heads of air forces. And given the sheer volume of sales in the largest internal defence market in the world, US companies can offer their defence goods at a more favourable price.
However, by purchasing American "black box" solutions, do we want to let a core segment of the European defence industry dry up? Do we want to put ourselves in a position of unilateral dependence – for each and every adaptation to our mission scenarios, each maintenance procedure, each update? Because this would be the consequence in the long term: Europe would no longer be in a position to penetrate the technology of highly complex systems manufactured in the USA.
If the answer to these questions is no, then we must put the declarations of intent into practice. Quickly. Because at the moment the supplier industry in this country is looking uneasily in the direction of the USA. Uncertainty is not a suitable tool for shaping the future, however. As the lead company for a project of this nature, we consider it our task to submit offers to the customers.
Offers that will allow France, Germany and the whole of Europe to achieve political objectives independently, where applicable also with the necessary technologies. This is not merely in line with the outcome of the last Franco-German council of ministers; it is also precisely what is needed now if the sovereignty of European states is indeed to be maintained. In this case the sum is greater than the individual parts.
The time for taking a decision is extremely tight. Both France and Germany have to replace large parts of their fleets in around 15 years' time because they will be too old for it to be sensible to keep them at an acceptable level by upgrading them. 15 years sounds like the distant future. However, for a multinational agreement on joint requirements for a Future Air Power System and the development of that system using the very latest technology, it is a highly ambitious timetable.
An interim solution for the replacement of old fleets already appears probable. If important decisions are delayed, a stopgap of this type could take on a dimension that would cast doubt on the economic efficiency of the entire project.
On the assumption that the necessary political will is in place, Airbus is offering to drive cooperation with its European partners and to shape this aspect of our common European future. The underlying conditions for such a long-term project are extremely challenging: it is not only in aviation that technologies are developing at an enormous pace of innovation. The geopolitical situation is also becoming increasingly less predictable, which, in turn, also makes it more difficult to forecast the requirements that a new air power system will have to meet.
This is why we are not expecting one new fighter aircraft that could satisfy all potential requirements on its own but a "family of systems" approach instead. In other words: different platforms, including unmanned ones, will be able to network with each other in such a way that they can jointly cover a broad range of missions and will be scalable. At the same time, dividing up the requirements into a modular family of systems is a way out of the complexity-cost trap, which states that costs rise disproportionately as the complexity of a product increases.
European industry is the leader in many of the individual solutions that are needed – or, at least, it still is at the moment. We therefore consider it to be realistic to bring everything together in order to meet the demand set out in the summit declaration.
To achieve that, however, it is now necessary to adopt the announced timetable as promised in early 2018 and thus provide clarity. We are ready.