It would be Europe’s biggest defence project for the next decades: Germany and France want to collaborate on the development of a new fighter jet. They even have the intention to bring in additional European countries as partners. The fighter aircraft should be ready for service at the start of the 2040s. Initial expert estimates are projecting development costs of up to 80 billion euros. The project was announced at the Franco-German Ministerial Council in Paris in mid-July 2017. Then, France’s President Emmanuel Macron explained during the press conference:
We want to develop a new generation of fighter aircraft. Why? Because these projects are very costly, and therefore difficult for the armed forces of both our countries, of both our governments – and because the fighter jet must be able to be exported. There have been too many European standards and qualifications thus far. And sometimes there is a European competitor on the international market.
An “EU fighter jet” developed under Franco-German leadership as an export hit would be an ambitious project. Claudia Major, an expert on European security policy at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, cautioned against euphoria:
To what extent are jointly constructed projects subject to German guidelines for the export of defence goods, and to what extent does this represent an impediment to exporting them? This is a topic that other Franco-German industrial projects have also touched; for example the concept of a Franco-German combat tank, the KANT project.
However, successful exports would be key for the planned high-tech fighter jet. The project primarily aims to override U.S. dominance in the field of air force equipment. The Lockheed Martin F-35 Lighting II means that the Americans have a “5th generation” fighter jet just a short time away from being operational. The F-35 is practically a robot with an on-board pilot. The fighter plane’s computer technology can recognise enemy objects over long distances, and determine weapon usage with a network of other units across air, land and sea.
The Europeans have been left behind by this development; only 4th generation fighter jets such as the Eurofighter are produced in Europe. The new Franco-German development is intended to change this. France’s Head of the Air Force, General André Lanata, referred to this issue at a consultation with the Defence Committee of the French Parliament at the end of July 2017. Back then, he said:
Our opponents and partners are modernising their air forces quicker. The F-35 — a next-generation stealth jet which has just been brought into service by several European air forces, as well as by the Australian air force — is at risk of being out-classed. In less than five years, the F-35 will be the new reference standard for taking part in military operations.
Now the French and Germans want to counteract U.S. dominance with their own high-tech 6th-generation jet. Claudia Major believes that this approach of focusing on one’s own strengths is also a signal to the United Kingdom:
And as a result, the decision to go ahead with this European, Franco-German project is a bit of a snub to London because it’s saying: “See, in the European Union, that’s where future-looking industrial decisions are being made”.
However, the French seem to toe the same line as the Brits in terms of military concepts that, in their view, are intended to ensure that the air force remains modern and successful in the future. For example, Paris and London agreed in 2016 to collaborate on the development of a “future combat air system” for their air forces until 2030. Specifically, this refers to a multi-purpose fighter drone which could be used as a strategic bomber, or for aerial combat.
Germany has also launched a defence project with the same name. However, the German concept for the future combat air system is heading in a different direction. This focuses on a manned high-tech commando aircraft intended to direct a network of fighter jets and drones.
As this shows, approaches across European air forces differ greatly from one another. In light of this background, how realistic is the joint fighter jet announced by Macron and Merkel? Markus Kerber, an expert in the armaments industry at the Technical University of Berlin, takes a sceptical view of the prospects of success for cooperation on the Franco-German fighter jet:
Of course, the technical requirements are based on the desired applications. And this could lead to a sizeable divide opening up between Germany and France. This has also been the case in previous, much simpler projects, such as the armour-plated transport vehicle. After three years, it was noted that this divide was impossible to bridge. I could very well imagine that this much-heralded project of a joint fighter jet could throw up unresolvable conceptual differences between Germany and France relatively swiftly.
At the start of the 1990s, France and Germany had planned a joint troop transporter for their armies. The French focused on their frequent military interventions in Africa and believed that a mobile, strong version was more important than the armour-plating which the German military set great store by. In the end, each country produced its own vehicle. It will also be hard to find a common denominator with the planned fighter jet.
Under French military doctrine, the aim is to act as an independent military power. As a result, the country still has an aircraft carrier, and it needs fighter jets to be able to use the carrier. However, the German Bundeswehr cannot engage in military conflicts on its own and without allies. Overseas deployments carried out by the German military are always multi-national.
It is only natural that collaboration between two such unequal partners is so challenging. Armaments expert Markus Kerber says that politicians should leave behind complicated prestige projects and take a different approach:
I think a lot of fantasy and too many pipe dreams have found their way into the entire “fighter jet” project. We first need to do our homework on products which are a lot more obvious. It is an utter mystery to me why Germany is not working with France to unify supply ships for the navy. We are currently not even able to standardise small tactical drones between Germany and France. Instead, there are endless developments taking place in parallel.
The task is clearly defined for defence projects such as naval suppliers for fuel and munitions, as well as for tactical reconnaissance drones. It would be much easier to find common ground there than in the high-tech “fighter jet” project. There is also an additional hurdle in the way of its implementation. There is an intense distribution battle brewing in the armaments industry: Airbus and Dassault Aviation are squaring off against each other. The Airbus Group, in which France is also involved, is developing the German future combat air system, and is also building the Eurofighter for the German Bundeswehr. French aerospace company Dassault Aviation is collaborating with the United Kingdom to develop their drone, and is producing the Rafale jet. The fighter jet forms the backbone of the French air force. Only these two companies would be in a position to make a huge project, like the construction of a 6th generation fighter jet, a reality. The companies would certainly be interested: the order would pump billions into their bank accounts over the course of a few decades.
However, difficulties could be posed by the fact that France and Germany do not take the same line on export issues relating to armaments. In light of this background, too, it remains wholly unclear as to whether this defence project for a high-tech European fighter jet will take flight under Franco-German leadership, or whether it will not even get off the ground due to the numerous obstacles in its way.