In order to understand the difficulties encountered in the development of the Future Combat Air System, the “system of systems” built around a sixth-generation fighter jet developed by Airbus and Dassault Aviation, the Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defense, and Armed Forces of the French Senate heard two executives from Airbus on March 17, 2021.
That hearing follows the testimony by Éric Trappier, the Chairman and CEO of Dassault Aviation, on March 10, 2021. The latter hinted at a “plan B” in case the negotiations with Airbus regarding the FCAS would fail. “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,” Trappier said.
For Airbus, the answer is clear: there is no plan B. “No alternative will make it possible to achieve the objective we have set for ourselves,” said Antoine Bouvier, Director of Strategy, Mergers and Acquisitions, and Public Affairs of Airbus. “The competition is not between Europeans, but with China and the United States. [A defense industry] is fundamental for Europe.”
Airbus also gave its position regarding the leadership of the program, which Dassault claimed was being challenged by its partner. According to Airbus, athough the French manufacturer is indeed the prime contractor for the Next Generation Fighter program, “it should not control everything and decide everything,” but arbitrate the decisions instead.
Dirk Hoke, the CEO of Airbus Defense and Space, called for appeasement and said it was urgent to “recreate a climate of trust and stop the controversies which pollute the debate.” If the FCAS program did not move forward soon, the risk was that Germany would turn towards US-based manufacturers.
As part of NATO nuclear sharing, Germany has to operate at least one type of aircraft capable of carrying one of the estimated 20 US B61 nuclear bombs stockpiled on its soil. To replace the aging Panavia Tornado fleet currently carrying out this mission for the Luftwaffe, Berlin announced it would order 30 F/A-18 Super Hornets for their nuclear capacity and 15 of the variant for electronic warfare, the EA-18G Growler. The contract, however, was not yet signed, according to Hoke.
Before the F-18 was picked, the idea of acquiring the Lockheed Martin F-35 had been also considered. If the FCAS was to fail, Germany could decide to acquire the fifth-generation fighter jet, which would set in stone the hegemony of the United States manufacturers among European air forces.
Both French senators and Airbus fear that with the German elections coming in September 2021, the political landscape could change at the Bundestag. The FCAS, criticized by many German lawmakers, could be thrown out the window. Thus, Hoke urged its French counterpart to find an agreement before June 2021.