Initial details of the planned Franco-German program to develop a next-generation European fighter jet are expected to emerge in the second half of 2018, says CEO of Airbus Defense and Space, Dirk Hoke, as the company attempts to move on from troubles with Eurofighter and A400M and find its place in Europe’s fragmented fighter industry.

Hoke told Reuters on February 16, 2018, that in the coming months France and Germany intend to work out how to proceed with the development of a new European warplane program. The deliberations also include whether to bring in additional partner country, an idea that Airbus supports.

“We expect basic issues, such as how the project will be structured, to be discussed in the second quarter, so that the initial contours will be set in the second half of the year,” Hoke said in an interview during the Munich Security Conference which took place on February 16-18, 2018, in Germany.

Although Airbus and Dassault Aviation are eyeing to take leadership of the project, as of yet no decision had been made on which company would lead the program. According to Hoke, different firms could lead different segments of the project. Importantly, much would depend on the level of investment by participating countries.

Back in July 2017, Reuters reported that German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron announced plans to jointly develop a new advanced European fighter jet that would be a successor for the Eurofighter Typhoon.

At the time, Airbus was claiming the leading role in the development, according to industry and defense officials. “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,” Hoke wrote in a German defense newsletter Griephan Briefe.

The Franco-German European fighter

The Franco-German plan to develop a new warplane would help shape the future of European fighter industry, fragmented at the moment with its three existing programs – the Eurofighter, France’s Rafale and Sweden’s Gripen, Reuters explains.

It is planned that the newly developed combat system, which could combine manned and unmanned aircraft, would eventually replace the rivaling Rafale and Eurofighter, as well as the older Luftwaffe’s Panavia Tornado.

The plans reflect an attempt to bury decades-long defense industry rivalries and tighten defense and security co-operation between France and Germany, as the UK withdraws from the EU. Meanwhile, the move would be a setback for the UK, Europe’s biggest defense spender, and its leading arms contractor, BAE Systems, defense industry experts have said.

It could possibly drive Britain toward cooperation with the U.S., as Britain already operates the Lockheed Martin F-35s as well as having a share of the Eurofighter program through BAE.

The Franco-German announcement was seen by some as the starting point in a long and unpredictable European negotiation affecting defense companies, including BAE and its Eurofighter partners Airbus and Leonardo, Reuters writes.

Prior to Hoke’s comments, all that was known was that the two countries will come up with a shared roadmap by the middle of 2018. There is still no clear time frame for when the new aircraft could enter production.

France pulled out from the Eurofighter program in the 1980s to produce its Rafale jet with Dassault. The Eurofighter Typhoon is due to be retired from German service in around 2045. Though both Rafale and Eurofighter Typhoon are among the most advanced fighter jets in service, their basic designs date back to the 1980s, The Drive writes.

Spanish Air Force Eurofighter Typhoon (Photo by Geoffrey Lee)


Future New Fighter concept

The Franco-German plan has similarities to Airbus Defense and Space’s Future Combat Air System (FCAS) project which the European aviation consortium first proposed in July 2016. Its New Fighter concept, part of the company’s wider Future Air Power doctrine, was revealed in November 2017 as a potential replacement for the Eurofighter Typhoon and Rafale by 2040.

Airbus head of strategy, Antoine Noguier, had said that the manned New Fighter would be part of a family of systems known as the FCAS. Speaking at an international conference in Berlin on November 8, 2017, he said “Germany and France have taken the decision to develop a new combat aircraft to maintain sovereign and European capabilities… We see a great future with the current (Eurofighter) platform, and we are developing the New Fighter also as a key element of this Future Combat Air System,” Jane’s by HIS Markit reported.

The FCAS concept was seemingly a response to a joint German-Spanish venture, known as Next Generation Weapon System (NGWS), which the two countries unveiled six months earlier. Their project envisioned the new aircraft entering service around 2030 or 2040, The Drive writes.

The troubled A400M program

Hoke pointed out it was imperative to avoid mistakes made in the last big European military program, the maligned Atlas A400M military transporter, which has been troubled with cost overruns, delays and technical difficulties.

“It’s important that the specifications (for the new fighter jet program) are developed with a sense of proportion,” he said. Adding that, it was also necessary to “prevent requirements that are too comprehensive and that cannot be delivered by industry,” Reuters reports. 

In its 2017 financial report, the company announced that it is to take a further $1.6 billion (€1.3 billion) charge on the A400M program for 2017 in order to mitigate the “impact of the adaptations on schedule, capabilities and retrofit” for the aircraft.

The original budget of $25 billion (€20 billion) has been significantly overrun, bringing total charges on the project to over $9.9 billion (€8 billion).

The A400M is a four-engine turboprop military transport aircraft, designed to compete with aircraft such as the C-130 and C-17 built by Lockheed Martin and Boeing respectively, The Manufacturer writes.

Hoke also said that a deal to stretch out the delivery schedule and accept certain changes would limit future losses, referring to an agreement reached by NATO buyers, Airbus and OCCAR (Organization for joint Armament Cooperation), a pan-European procurement agency, to negotiate a new delivery schedule for the aircraft.

Hoke believes that agreements with individual countries could be finalized by the end of 2018. He told Reuters that the declaration of intention had helped repair worsened relations with A400M buyers. “It was a very constructive cooperation, and there was strong support from all participants,” he said.

Airbus expects to release details about the next steps on a European program to develop a drone by late April, 2018, at the Berlin air show.

Airbus A400M Atlas (Photo by Laurent Errera)


The shadow of Eurofighter dispute with Austria

The news comes after the investigation of Airbus Defense and Space by the Munich Public Prosecutor related to the sale of Eurofighter aircraft to Austria in 2003 was ended on February 9, 2018. The result of the investigation, which had been ongoing since 2012, did not confirm the allegations of bribery, an official statement from Airbus says.

Back in February 2017, the Austrian Ministry of Defense filed a criminal complaint with the Vienna Office of Public Prosecutors against Airbus Defense and Space and Eurofighter consortium. The Republic of Austria joined the proceedings against the two Airbus companies as a private party.

The Austrian Armed Forces released their official statement on February 16, 2017, in regards to the “Task Force Eurofighter”, saying that “the two accused Airbus companies have willfully and fraudulently been deceiving the Republic of Austria since 2002, both with regards to the true purchase price as well as to the true ability to deliver and true specifications of the Eurofighter interceptor planes.”

On July, 2017, the Austrian Ministry of Defense announced plans to phase out its Eurofighter jets. The official press release by the Ministry stated that “from 2020 onward, the Armed Forces will gradually phase out operations with the 15 Tranche 1 Eurofighter Typhoon aircraft now in use, with their limited equipment and significant cost uncertainty.”

The long-lasting investigation was based on the allegation of a negligence of supervisory duties of members of Airbus Defense and Space former management. It was alleged that certain former management failed to ensure proper internal controls that would have prevented employees from making payments to business partners without proven documented services in exchange.

Airbus has always denied these allegations, filing a submission to the Vienna Office of Public Prosecutions regarding the case on September 18, 2017. It claims to have fully cooperated with the Munich Public Prosecutor in the probe. Airbus also claims that since 2012 the company has undertaken major efforts to create a new Compliance culture and a serious Compliance program.

Nevertheless, the Munich Public Prosecutor has issued an administrative penalty notice against Airbus Defense and Space amounting to $100.4 million (€81.25 million), with the total amount comprising an administrative fine of $380,840 (€250,000) and a disgorgement of $100.1 million (€81 million).

About Eurofighter Typhoon

Eurofighter Typhoon is a twin-engine, multi-role/swing-role fighter jet with air-to-air and air-to-surface capabilities, manufactured by a consortium of Alenia Aermacchi (Leonardo since 2017), Airbus and BAE Systems, which conducts the majority of the project through a joint holding company, Eurofighter Jagdflugzeug.

Eurofighter Typhoon was introduced in 2003 as Europe’s largest collaborative defense program. Its primary customers are the air forces of the UK, Germany, Italy and Spain. Eurofighter is involved in operations worldwide, working alongside NATO assets. It is regularly deployed on air policing missions over the Baltic airspace.

According to Airbus, as of November 2017, there were 526 jets in operation, with 747 total orders and 531 deliveries to 155 customers from 75 countries. Europe, Asia Pacific and the Middle East with North Africa have placed the most orders for the jets and have the most of them in service, with Europe being at the top.