The restless technophile

Dassault CEO shoots down German-Spanish demands over FCAS

Eric Trappier, the CEO of French airplane maker Dassault Aviation, was heard today by the Foreign Affairs, Defense and Armed forces committee of the French Senate, and delivered a strong message on the state of the trilateral Future Combat Air System project. To sum it up bluntly, he said that the demands Germany and Spain are making lead to an unworkable project.

Here is a video of the hearing, in French. A transcript will be published by parliamentary services in the week to come, but for now here are the highlights:

Dassault artist impression of the NGF
Simpler times: French, German and Spanish Defense Ministers and the French President celebrate around a NGF mockup at the 2019 Paris Airshow

Analysis and path forward

FCAS seems to be in dire straits. To use again of of Trappier’s sayings, “the patient is not in terminal phase but is not doing well”. The main cause of problems seems to be the 33% share of Spain in the project. It removes the French leadership, and consequently makes it impossible to have a main design authority. Furthermore, the Spanish share is unrealistically high and should have been challenged by French political authorities: Spain spent 17B$ (1.2% of GDP) on defense in 2020, to be compared to 50B$ for France (1.9% of GDP) and 49B$ for Germany (1.3% of GDP). As such, it is completely illusory that Spain will order as many FCAS planes and remote carriers as France and Germany, and thus the 30% share will not be able to be maintained in the production phase. However, once a country has done the R&D for a subsystem, switching the production to another country is extremely difficult. Indeed, this has been a common technique in previous European cooperations projects such as A400M: some states (Germany not to name names) announced they would order a large number of aircraft and get a correspondingly large workshare in return, and then, once manufacturing started and the factories could no longer be moved, significantly reduced their orders, keeping the industrial benefits without having to pay the costs.

Another way to look at this is by the number of fighters in each Air Force: Spain has 68 Eurofighters and 72 FA-18As, Germany has 60 Tornado (which will be replaced by Eurofighters and FA-18E/F/Gs, not FCAS) and 141 Typhoons (with teething readiness problems due to low maintenance funding) and France 55 renovated Mirage 2000D, 28 Mirage 200-5F, 105 Rafale B&C and 42 Rafale M. Based on these numbers, the fighters to be replaced by FCAS are 140 for Spain, 140 for Germany and 230 for France, ie 510 in total, suggesting a 27.5%/27.5%/45% split.

A 25%/25%50% split would probably be palatable to Germany and Spain regarding industrial return, and even more to France. It would still ensure a clear design authority for the project, making it much more likely to succeed. If such a deal cannot be reached quickly, the German parliamentary elections, followed by the French presidential elections, will put a stop to the project, making it likely that France will go it alone or find other partners to fulfill its real operational need of having a new fighter in 2040.