PARIS --- The New Generation Fighter (NGF), part of the French-German-Spanish Future Combat Air System, is still in limbo, and two recent events have shown just how frozen the project is.
On May 9, during their first meeting, French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz discussed the NGF. The German side proposed a joint-venture (50/50) on the flight controls which was declined by President Macron himself.
The next day, on May 1, Mr. Joel Barre, head of the French Directorate General of Armaments (DGA), met his German counterpart, Lt. Gen. Benedikt Zimmer, for an overview of bilateral co-operation programs. According to several sources, nothing was decided to move forward.
From sticking points….
These developments confirm that the sticking points are still here, namely:
--The governance of the project is still confused. Last March, the CEO of the French manufacturer, Dassault Aviation, Éric Trappier, did not hide his irritation before the claims of Airbus and made clear several key points:
“Somewhere, I think we have made enough efforts so that, now, we can get there. […] I agree to be a leader only if I have the levers to be so. If it's to co-co-co, since there are three of us now, I won't do it because it would be lying to our armed forces to be able to do something in co-development without a leader and to ensure performance, time and cost" (…)
“With France, which is the leader on the contract, Dassault Aviation is ready to sign. We did everything we needed to be able to sign with Airbus. I am waiting for Airbus’ signature. […] In 2022, we will have to decide, we cannot remain in arms, at some point we say yes or we say no.”
The role of the three States should be clarified because such a project will obviously find more hurdles on its way. In such cases, what is the real power of the States and what are the margins of maneuvers of the designated team leader, Dassault Aviation?
With Spain and Germany already accustomed to co-operate, notably on the Eurofighter EF-2000, the French side could be opposed by its two partners and put under pressure, despite its official leadership role in the program.
Several other technical and technological issues such as the flight controls, the functional architecture, stealth, man-machine interface and, of course, the IP background of all these fields remain undecided.
They form the core of any fighter, and have been mastered by Dassault Aviation for decades and are viewed as key for assuming its role of prime contractor of the program.
However, the workshare is still contested by the German side, despite the fact that 68% of the fighter will be produced by Airbus Germany & Spain.
All these points have been sum-up by the General Delegate for Armaments, Joël Barre, in a hearing before the Defence Committee of the French Senate:
"On this point, I defend the following position: there is an agreement between the two industrialists concerning phase 1B - which was to be started in 2021 and which we can hope to start by the end of 2022 if we manage to conclude the discussions - covering the period 2022-2025. Airbus must sign the contract that Dassault has offered.”
“I agree […] that we must be firm with the German side regarding the commitments that have already been made – in particular the industrial organization providing for clear responsibility for each pillar. You need a project manager and an architect for the plane. The best in the field must be designated in this case, namely Dassault France and not Airbus Germany. Finally, the balance between the two countries must be assessed in the light of all the cooperation programs”.
…to plan B, both in France and in Germany?
GO/NO GO? The hesitation waltz around the NGF is also visible in the various Plan Bs being discreetly drafted both in France and in Germany.
In France, the Rafale will undergo major enhancements through its various standards: F4 and soon F5; the French fighter confirms its premises of being an “omnirole” and evolving combat aircraft. The F5 Standard is planned for 2035, giving the French Air Force a very capable fighter for almost two decades. This should give DGA and Dassault Aviation enough time to think about a new revolutionary aircraft (a space fighter?), full of disruptive technologies and capabilities.
In Germany, with the agreement on the Special Fund, the MoD and Airbus will essentially focus their efforts in the development of a new version of the Eurofighter: the ECR version, which is, from an operational point of view, quite absurd for a fighter designed to be only a defensive interceptor.
Besides, the purchase of key American platforms (P-8 Poseidon and of course the F-35) should direct the German Air Force towards the hermetic American bubble, like so many European countries recently. This should close the operational access of any future European fighter or air combat system for a long time.
All in all, observing all these developments, one could wonder whether the FCAS is still needed…