In February this year, German, French, and Spanish officials reached an impasse in their negotiations on the Future Combat Air System (FCAS) project. The three countries disagree over intellectual property rights and work shares, with the French company Dassault demanding 50% of the workload. Disagreements went so far as the consideration of build three demonstrators instead of one, further driving up the cost of the project.
On March 5th, Dassault Aviation presented its annual results for 2020. During this presentation and a Q&A-Session afterwards, chairman and CEO of Dassault, Éric Trappier commented on the problems with the development of the joint Franco-Spanish-German project, specifically its centrepiece, the New Generation Fighter (NGF). Dassault stated, that while being troubled by the pandemic, development of the 1A Phase of development had commenced.
Since the arrival of Spain to the project in June 2019, the balance for the development has shifted. Whereas before it was a 50-50 split between French Dassault and German Airbus, the development would now be equally distributed between manufacturers from all three counties. With Spain also being represented by Airbus, the balance is now one-third for Dassault and two-thirds for Airbus. Dassault admitted this to be a difficulty albeit one they have accepted.
While Dassault still nominally leads the project, Trappier highlights the difficulties of the current distribution: “If we have too much joint work, so there's no leader anymore, or if we give too much responsibility to Airbus then it becomes difficult for Dassault to play the role of the prime contractor.” He adds: “Airbus accepts Dassault is the prime contractor, but we also need to be able to commit to the three countries to play that role.”
Regarding questions of intellectual property, Trappier says: “the one who creates is the owner of his technology. The creator must be protected, not the one paying. The creator remains the owner of his intellectual property.” Citing Dassault’s 70 years of experience, he states “That doesn't mean that we are not ready to use this intellectual capacity to build a future programme. The intellectual property belongs to me. I can share it if I wish to share it, but I remain the owner.”
Trappier pointed out that, this does not mean that NGF would be a ‘Black Box’, a system of unknown processes, in which only the in- and output is known, which he mentioned in relation to American aircraft. “There will be no black box in the FCAS from Dassault. Everything will be open. All the companies developing our programmes will have insights into their responsibilities. Even if some responsibilities are strictly Dassault or strictly Airbus, states will have access. They will know what is in the black box.”
Dassault CEO Trappier reassures Dassault’s leadership position in the troubled project. While discussing the workshare between Dassault and Airbus, he made clear that it would be possible to develop the system entirely French, but highlighted the advantages of multi-national cooperation.
Trappier also denies any ambitions of merging FCAS with the British Tempest, “that is not on our agenda.” On the issue of intellectual property problems with the close connection of British and American developments, he remarks that American “stealth technologies are very well locked” and that the vision of a ‘black box’ came from an American and not a French experience.
When asked if France would be able to develop FCAS and NGF on its own, Trappier answered: “Dassault can make Rafale and Falcons alone every day. Secondly, Safran can make fighter plane engines. They have done it for Rafale. And third, Thales can make radars, countermeasures, a number of electronic equipment. With MBDA for missiles, the answer technically is yes.” However, he added: “the real question, the real challenge here is efficacy” Alluding to the budgets spend by American, Chinese, and Russian competitors: “We're working in cooperation to be more effective, not just for the fun of it.”
Despite this, when questioned about a possible closure of the project, he mentioned a ‘plan B’. “If we do not succeed, the question would be what is our plan B. Each company always has a plan B. It does everything so that plan A might succeed. But the day when plan A does not succeed, it needs to have a plan B.“
The FCAS project had begun in 2017 when German Chancellor Merkel and French President Macron decided to mend the divide that had existed on defence cooperation ever since the separate development of Eurofighter and Rafale. The main components of FCAS are a piloted fighter as the core air vehicle, with additional UAVs, and an advanced ‘combat cloud’ network to ensure connectivity in combat. In February 2020, both countries signed a 150 million Euro contract on the development of the project. Dassault and Airbus would build the fighter jet; Safran and MTU Aero Engines develop the engine; Airbus and MBDA would work on the drones; Airbus and Thales SA are in charge of the digital aspects. The Spanish effort is led by their electronics company Indra, with cooperation from Airbus Spain.
FCAS runs in parallel to another big Franco-German defence cooperation project: The Main Ground Combat System (MGCS). Like FCAS, it is split equally between German firms Rheinmetall and Krauss-Maffei Wegmann (KMW) and French Nexter. Contrasting FCAS however, the German side takes the lead on the MGCS project.
Adding to concerns by its manufacturers, the project has also been plagued by the differing strategic visions of the partners. While the French have made clear their operational requirements on the system, such as carrier capability with their Charles de Gaulle, as well as long range strike and nuclear delivery capability, those later two points are a thorn in the side of German politicians and public. As such, the reigning German coalition is divided on the project. Further funds are withheld until the next stage of development, thus postponing further consideration until after the German elections later this year.