OPINION: French and German Ministers Kick FCAS and MGCS Decisions to End October
(Source: Defense-Aerospace.com; posted Sept. 23, 2022)

By Giovanni de Briganti
Meeting for the first time in Berlin, the French and German defense ministers agreed to prepare a schedule for the MGCS future tank program, and to press for advancing the FCAS next-gen fighter, highlighting they can do little to force industry to sign contracts against its will. (French MoD photo)
PARIS --- Hoping to end an enduring stalemate in their two largest defense programs, the French and German defense ministers yesterday agreed to press their administrations to advance both projects, and to prepare a status report that will be submitted to a joint meeting of the French and German cabinets scheduled late October.

While not quite the proverbial ‘death by committee,’ the words mouthed by both ministers are hardly indicative of an iron determination to get the two programs moving after years of bickering.

The German defense ministry’s statement about yesterday’s meeting – France had not yet issued one at the time of writing – mentioned joint programs only in fifth position, and included what can only be seen as vague declarations of lukewarm support:

“Regarding the Franco-German armaments cooperation, Minister [Lecornu] said: “That is the future, to be set up together and interoperably, for the joint Future Combat Air System (FCAS). Germany and France will do everything in their power to find joint solutions. Lambrecht emphasized: “This is a project that must be – and will be – a success. We both will definitely do our part.” Minister Lecornu said FCAS is a priority project. Industry will continue to advise on this. For the Main Ground Combat System (MGCS), a timetable will be presented before the Franco-German Council of Ministers.

"Many things have been said and written in recent weeks, and I believe that we can cut it short with a single sentence, by saying that the SCAF is a priority project", Lecornu said during a joint press conference with Lambrecht. "We have a Franco-German council of ministers at the end of October, so that leaves us a few weeks of preparation to act on demanding schedules," Lecornu added in a less decisive tone.

That both ministers spoke of bilateral political fora, of the Franco-German brigade, of fighting terrorism in the Sahel, and of Ukraine before mentioning their joint defense projects amply proves that they did little more than pay lip service to the tenets of Franco-German defense cooperation.

Powerless ministers?

After having posted two rather unconvincing tweets on Thursday, Lecornu belatedly made a stronger-sounding statement at noon on Friday:

"On industrial cooperation, with Christine Lambrecht we decided to pursue the main Franco-German joint programs. SCAF is a major project…: it will happen.”

In fact, the two ministers – both recently appointed: Lambrecht in December and Lecornu in May -- are belatedly discovering that, since their predecessors privatized both Dassault Aviation and Airbus, they have few levers to force reluctant manufacturers to sign contracts against their will and their perceived interests.

This must be particularly galling for Airbus, which in a misguided moment sold off the 46,3% stake in Dassault that its EADS predecessor had been given by the French government. At the time, then-EADS CEO Tom Enders said that he did not consider it “a strategic investment.”

Dassault Aviation, now sitting on an order book valued at over €20 billion, can comfortably afford to ignore government pressure to sign the Future Combat Air System (SCAF, by its French acronym) and wait for the next government. Its CEO, Eric Trappier, has repeatedly stated that he would not sign a contract that would force him to give Airbus access to its proprietary technology.

Although financially less fortunate, Nexter, the French partner in the Main Ground Combat System, is also loath to lower its 50% share of the program to accommodate the late arrival of a second German partner, Rheinmetall, to please the German government.

But, nonetheless, the only concrete advance Lambrecht and Lecornu were able to announce yesterday is that “a timetable [for MGCS] will be agreed and presented to the Franco-German Council of Ministers” in October.

Whatever one may think of this meeting, it is clear that it did little to advance either program, and that discovering the next steps for FCAS/SCAF and MGCS will have to wait until late October in the event that ministers are able to find a compromise solution that satisfies the aspirations of the main contractors on both sides – something that, today like yesterday, seems improbable.


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