Announced two years ago now, the future fighter plane project is struggling to take off. Discussions are blocking on questions of responsibility sharing and because of Dassault’s refusal to reveal some of its technological secrets.
Will the future European fighter plane pass the sketch stage? Entangled in “difficult” discussions between France, Germany, Spain and their industrialists, the project stumbled over questions of sharing of tasks and responsibilities.
“I do not believe that the vital process is engaged yet but I will not tell you that the patient is not in a difficult state. We are at this point of difficulty, but we still believe in it, ”said Friday Eric Trappier, CEO of Dassault Aviation.
The aircraft manufacturer was appointed industrial prime contractor for the new generation combat aircraft (known as NGF or “New Generation Fighter”), the main component of the Future Air Combat System (SCAF).
According to the boss of Airbus Guillaume Faury, main partner of the program, the negotiations are “very advanced but the last kilometer is probably the most difficult and that happens at a time constrained by the situation in the various countries”.
France and Germany, associated with Spain, hope to validate before the German elections in September the industrial study contracts to lead in 2026 to the construction of a demonstrator, a sort of pre-prototype intended to validate the feasibility of the concept.
The stake of this flagship defense cooperation program in Europe is strategic for the three countries. They must replace their Rafale and Eurofighter planes by 2040 and ensure that their manufacturers remain at the highest technological level.
Chancellor Angela Merkel threw a stone in the pond in early February, saying she “reopened the subject of distribution and continuation of work” which had been decided when the program was launched.
“It’s a project under French leadership, but the German partners still need to be able to be at a satisfactory level vis-à-vis their counterparts. So we need to see very precisely the issues of industrial property, task sharing and leadership sharing, ”she explained.
The technologies developed by Dassault, which will be used to develop the demonstrator, “this is what makes the value of Dassault which therefore does not want to sell” its intellectual property, observes in a forum Jean-Pierre Maulny, researcher at the Institute of International and Strategic Relations.
Dassault does not want to divulge its technological secrets
For its part, according to him, Germany considers that it will “pay to finance a military capacity” but “will not have control over it. It is also a legitimate point of view ”.
Another sticking point is the distribution of tasks by third parties between the three states. On the NGF, Dassault will have a third of the load for France, and Airbus – present in Germany and Spain – two thirds. “It’s a difficulty that Dassault has accepted,” says Eric Trappier.
But Dassault had to agree that half of the tasks to be accomplished be done “jointly” and not have a single referent. “Which means that no one is responsible,” says Eric Trappier.
The French aircraft manufacturer, on the other hand, refuses to leave certain “sensitive or strategic” areas to others in which it considers itself to be technologically advanced, for example on electric flight controls, a critical element of an aircraft.
“To ensure the project management, Dassault needs to have levers, to take responsibility to engage vis-à-vis States”, he insists. At the risk of being once again confronted with the setbacks experienced by the A400M transport aircraft.
“At the time, we had the vision of this military equipment as an industrial project which should first of all give equivalent results for the national industries of the states involved”, reported the Minister of the Armed Forces Florence Parly in front of the German think tank. DGAP.
“What did we see next? Delays, technical problems because we have not implemented the principle of the best athlete, and significant budget overruns ”. For France, it is therefore a question of designating the best in its field and clearly identifying the responsibilities of each.
An argument also raised by Olivier Andriès, boss of Safran, who must “make room” for the Spanish engine manufacturer ITP after having given birth in pain to an agreement with the German MTU: “we have to rely on performance and skills demonstrated, we must not fall back into the mistakes of the past ”.