Since the beginning of 2021, many voices have been heard doubting the feasibility of the Future Combat Air System (FCAS) program, a “system of systems” built around a sixth-generation fighter jet, the Next Generation Fighter (NGF). Contracted by the authorities of France, Germany, and Spain, the program brings together the competency of various European manufacturers under the leadership of Dassault Aviation and Airbus Defense and Space.
On March 10, 2021, Éric Trappier, the Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Dassault Aviation, was heard by the Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defense and Armed Forces of the French Senate, to discuss the relevance of the project and its viability.
Dassault Aviation feels cornered
Trappier criticized the inclusion of Spain in the project, which hinders the leadership initially given to France. He explained that in the case of a disagreement, matters are sent to the three procurement agencies of the three states. “If two states ally, they will make the decisions,” he explained. “How can we ensure our French leadership and our French project management in such an organization?”
He also regretted the inclusion of the Spanish branch of Airbus in the program, which created an imbalance in the negotiations. “For the NGF and Pillar 1, it’s a two-person household, with Airbus and Dassault. But then, Airbus will weigh two-thirds and Dassault a third. It shifted from the 50/50 equilibrium where Dassault held the lead, to two-thirds/one-third.”
And Airbus’ weight in the project already forced Dassault to make concessions. For example, Dassault reportedly accepted that about 50% of “work packages” were to be done without a designated manager and that the other half would be divided into three, leaving only a third for the French manufacturer to lead.
This manager-less system was the one adopted by the Eurofighter partners (that included Germany and Spain, but not France) for the development of the Typhoon. That model, however, could result in a budget overrun and unclear operational needs, according to Trappier. “The Rafale did not cost France more than the Eurofighter did Germany, the United Kingdom or Italy,” noted Dassault’s CEO. “I let the operational staff judge and establish a comparison between the Eurofighter and the Rafale, but I can say that the Rafale lands on an aircraft carrier and carries the airborne nuclear component (CNA), which is not the case with the Eurofighter.”
Germany was also given the leadership of Pillar 3, which concerns the development of “remote carriers” ‒ combat drones that would assist the fighter jet much like the “loyal wingmen” concepts developed by the United States, Australia, or Russia.
Dassault already has experience in the domains, having led the development of the nEUROn stealth combat drone demonstrator whose maiden flight dates back to December 2012. But on November 5, 2019, Airbus Defense and Space unveiled the existence of its “Low Observable UAV Testbed”, or LOUT. Developed in secret, the demonstrator visibly gave Airbus enough leverage to be awarded Pillar 3.
More points of contention
Despite the concessions already made, Germany and Airbus are now asking for more, according to Trappier. They required to also have the final word about the flight controls of the NGF, the aircraft’s “nervous system, essential for its safety and maneuverability,” the cockpit, and the stealth capability. In these conditions, Dassault would not have any leverage over the strategic areas of the NGF, despite having received the leadership of its development.
Germany further upped the ante on intellectual property. In the words of Luftwaffe Chief of Staff Ingo Gerhartz, Berlin would refuse to deal with technological “black boxes” over which it could not have control due to the lack of intellectual property. “It should be possible to hand intellectual property rights from one branch of industry to the other so that all partners can make their own developments in the future,” Gerhartz commented, hinting at the use of Dassault’s technologies for other German programs.
“Intellectual property is not a black box,” answered Trappier. “In the FCAS, the States will know everything that is on the plane and can even modify it. Knowing how a system and an aircraft work and how it is designed, however, does not require knowledge of the rules to achieve the result. […] If I give my background today and the program is canceled in two years, how would I be protected from the competition?”
A plan B? Yes, but not alone
Thus, Dassault is already studying the possibility of a “plan B” if the situation is not resolved. “My plan B does not necessarily consist in doing it alone, but in finding a method of governance that allows Europeans to be brought in, but not according to the rules set today, because that will not work,” Dassault’s CEO hinted.
The method of governance that Trappier alluded to could be the one that led to the development of the nEUROn. Unlike the FCAS which has to answer to three countries, the nEUROn was developed under the aegis of a single procurement and technology agency, the French Directorate General of Armaments (DGA). Instead of being imposed by the government, the industrial base was integrally composed by Dassault Aviation as the prime contractor. “For the nEUROn, the State asked us to find partners and we have found partners[…] and we have built political cooperation around an industrial project. It is the opposite today,” Trappier argued. “Finding other partners is not up to me, but to the State. I did not choose Germany, the decision is political.”
As a reminder, Dassault had chosen the French group Thales, Leonardo for Italy, Saab for Sweden, EADS-CASA (since merged into Airbus Defense and Space) for Spain, HAI for Greece, and RUAG for Switzerland, to participate in the development of the nEUROn. “For €450 million, half of which was paid by France, we managed to fly a drone the size of a Mirage 2000, ultra stealthy in fairly fast conditions and in six countries,” he recalled. “I can’t tell you about the performance, since it is classified, but it is better than expected and on budget.”
The matter now appears to be in the hand of the authorities. Questioned on the problems currently affecting the FCAS, the French Minister of Armed Forces Florence Parly said she required, along with her German counterpart Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, for the industrialists to continue the discussions in order to reach an agreement… if possible.
“However, we should not forget the major principles which have been laid down by the President of the Republic [Emmanuel Macron] and the Chancellor [Angela Merkel] since the beginning,” Parly commented. It seems unlikely, however, that the Bundestag, which repeatedly voiced its concern that the project was favoring the French industry over the German one, will sing the same tune.
On March 17, 2021, Dirk Hoke, CEO of Airbus Defence and Space, was heard by the French Senate on the same subject. “There is no Plan B,” Hoke said. “Plan B is FCAS, any other solution would be much less favorable for everyone.”