Richard Aboulafia: July 2017 Letter

Dear Fellow Schengen Agreement Defenders,

France’s aerospace industry tells one of the happiest stories of the 20th century. Created and built in parts of France as far from Germany as possible to be far away from wars, it finished the century in fruitful alliances with Germany. The two countries together build, or have built, jetliners, helicopters, military transports, trainers, space launchers, and many other systems. But never fighters. 

That makes this month’s Franco-German fighter announcement noteworthy. French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel announced a new joint fighter program study. They gave themselves until mid 2018 to create a joint roadmap for something that will replace their existing fighter fleets.

It’s nice to know that after 30 years, my job still has the power to make me skeptical. As a fan of globalization, and as a fan of these two world leaders, I’m inclined to really like this new fighter concept. But there’s my damn day job. As an aerospace industry and market analyst, I can see eight serious problems and hurdles with this bold idea:

  1. The Prime Contractor Question. Since Airbus is largely a Franco-German creation, they’d be the natural prime. The German and Spanish parts of the company are also co-primes on Eurofighter. Yet Dassault is France’s national fighter prime, and has been since the jet age began. Dassault has a distinctive culture, and is not known for playing well with other equal companies. Until 2016, Airbus owned 46% of Dassault, and the two generally didn’t speak to each other. Dassault was once called the loose cannon on the deck of EADS’s ship. Who will be in charge?
  2. Workshare (airframe). Thanks largely to Dassault, France too has always seen itself as the dominant fighter player in Europe. When Germany, the UK, Italy, and Spain were creating Eurofighter in the early 1980s, they invited France to join. France demanded a 46% share of this notional five-nation program. I doubt they’d settle for less than two-thirds of a two-nation program. Germany might balk at this, particularly if they’re asked to pay 50% of the bill.
  3. Workshare (everything else). Every other French fighter has been a classic Franco-French joint venture. France has the last truly autarkic fighter industry in the Western world, with everything built in-country. Even if the French were willing to award large systems subcontracts, which German company could do more than play a minority role? For radar, EW, displays, and other avionics, Germany has nothing like Thales. For engines, Safran would need to be the prime; MTU could merely expect a junior partner role. The only large work package would be airframe work (and probably a production line) in Manching.
  4. Politics. Macron and Merkel have lots in common, and seem to like each other. Yet the majority of France did not vote for Macron. If France takes a turn towards the dark side (or if Macron doubles down on his recent pro-Trump populism), a cozy defense relationship with Germany would be at risk, along with this new fighter.
  5. The Rest of Europe. After Eurofighter, the UK, Italy, and probably Spain will be spending their combat aircraft budgets on F-35s through the 2020s. They might not be able to fund new fighters in the 2030s. Or, they might just keep buying F-35s; Spain needs to buy F-35Bs for their carrier anyway, so they could easily follow Italy and buy F-35As too. Given BAE and Rolls- Royce’s F-35 share, the UK has every incentive to stay with that plane. After the Franco-German announcement, BAE Systems officials said that they expected a workshare, which might be a touch entitled, since the Macron-Merkel statement can be viewed as a snub against the UK.

    Also, Turkey, which played an important role in the A400M, is going with its own TF-X. Given the miserable state of Turkish political relations with the EU (and most of the world) it’s unlikely that the TF-X requirement can be merged with the new Franco-German program.

  1. Unsynchronized fighter budgets and programs. Germany will likely take its last Eurofighter before 2020. But France will still be buying Rafales through 2025, at least, and the type could even stay in production through the decade. Before 2025, Germany will be in the market for new fighters (Tornado replacements), and it has just received its first classified F-35 briefing. France might not be willing to start funding a plane that it won’t need until the 2030s.
  2. R&D spending aversion. Later this month, General Pierre de Villiers, chief of the French general staff, resigned. In a blow to Macron, the defense chief said he “no longer feels capable of assuring the continuation of the military model” needed to defend France. And future technology development is the weakest part of France and Germany’s defense budgets. The two countries prioritize immediate force needs (particularly if overseas operations are underway, as they have been) and job-creating weapons production programs (like A400M). R&D gets the last few remaining Euros. Since this new fighter is at the very least a $15-20 billion effort, it’s far from clear how it will be funded.
  3. Stealth. A key F-35 performance attribute (and marketing message). But stealth is expensive, both to develop and to purchase. Dassault has some modest stealth experience, but Eurofighter is possibly the least stealthy Western fighter built today (accurate marketing slogan: “Eurofighter! You’ll know it’s coming!”). Will people care about stealth in 2035? There’s no way to know for certain, but if they do the F-35, or any other new US fighters, will retain a significant advantage. Alternatively, France and Germany could aggressively pursue stealth, but that would push the development bill to the $30 billion range.

Those big obstacles imply that the odds are against this plane getting off the ground. But before I completely discount this Franco-German fighter concept, consider: 2000-2020 were (and are) miserable years for defense budgets in the two partner nations. Yet together they still procured over 300 new and very expensive (~$100 million per plane) fighters in this period. Add another 200 for exports, and that’s the start of a respectable business case.

July Aircraft Binder updates include the Business Aircraft overview, LCA, Learjet, PC-9/21/T-6, and E-2. Have a great month.

Yours, ‘Til France and Germany Build A 550-Seat Military Transport,

Richard Aboulafia