PARIS — To Laurent Collet-Billon, head of the French Direction Générale de l'Armement procurement office, the U.K. remains a key partner, even with massive change expected from Britain's planned exit from the European Union. That commitment is evident in joint defense initiatives, notably the £1.54 billion (U.S. $1.96 billion) project to build an unmanned combat aerial vehicle demonstrator. For that, London is currently the sole partner.

But the DGA chief sees great potential beyond that Anglo-French partnership. To him, defense partnerships with regional allies are key to expanding France's own national security. He points to efforts to work with Berlin, Rome and Madrid on studies for a European medium-altitude, long-endurance UAV, for example, as well as cooperation on other aeronautics and space programs. 

So the pursuit of European defense is on.

Collet-Billon spoke to Pierre Tran of Defense News ahead of the Paris Air Show.

Will the British exit from the European Union, or Brexit, hurt the Anglo-French Future Combat Air System Demonstration Program, or FCAS DP? Will Germany join the project? 

Brexit is not incompatible with the Lancaster House agreement. We will continue programs such as the Future Anti Surface Guided Weapon (Heavy), Maritime Mine Counter Measures, and FCAS DP.

Regarding FCAS DP, we have ongoing discussions for the minimum two-year contracts that will lead to two demonstrators in 2025. We are working to have a contract by the end of the year. We are discussing technical specifications. There are active, rigorous discussions on successors to Storm Shadow, Exocet and other missiles.

We have always said to the British, that at some time in the future we would let the Germans know where we are to let them join the program if they wish. Last year, we told them we had not reached that point as we had not frozen the targets for the demonstrator. The principle is still open.

The U.K. is an essential military power in Europe, with a great deal of know-how, operational experience in Iraq and Afghanistan and elsewhere. We hold joint exercises. That counts. 

Are there new projects with Germany and other partners on the continent for European defense?

The Minister for Armed Forces, Sylvie Goulard, wants to give a boost to our cooperation with Germany and our other partners. There will be something in aeronautics, with opportunities such as the medium-altitude, long-endurance UAV. The next step is to validate the feasibility study. There are four partners — France, Germany and Italy and soon Spain. The timetable is around 2025. 

There is [the] Tornado replacement for Germany by 2035, and then Eurofighter and Rafale replacement in 2040-45. And before 2035, the question of UCAV has also to be addressed. How do we arrange a common roadmap? There will be dialog with other European countries, the start of a long road.

We are studying strong cooperation with Italy in the naval domain, also military space with Italy and Germany, for next generation communications, optical and radar satellites. 

What is important about the acquisition of STX shipyard by Fincantieri?

The main requirement is guaranteed access to the Saint-Nazaire dockyard, which is large enough to build a logistics and supply ship or an aircraft carrier. It is out of the question that STX compete with DCNS on highly armed ships. 

It is very smart to have closer ties between DCNS and Fincantieri — except nuclear submarines, which are French eyes only. Fincantieri is a longstanding partner, with Horizon and multi-mission frigates, and we wish to cooperate with Italy on logistics and supply ships. There are lots of possibilities: capital, development, production and sales. It is not impossible that DCNS take a stake in STX. 

What is the outlook for KraussMaffei Nexter Defense System? Is there difficulty in gaining German approval of an arms export agreement?
Germany has sold the Leopard 2 tank, including a modernized version, to many countries. The export issue for the future French-German tank will have to be discussed with Germany. The French-German tank project could be extended to other partner countries. I am convinced other companies could be interested in joining this project. In that case, export conditions will have to be the same for every country. 

Are there other possibilities for European program cooperation?
I am thinking about a maritime patrol and anti-submarine  aircraft to replace the Atlantique 2, with Germany and other countries. There is also electronics. Torpedoes constitute another market. The European market is small, and the world market is not exactly abundant. It would be better to have cooperation and have one consolidated European offer. 

What are the main issues on the European Union's fund for defense research?
The medium-altitude, long-endurance UAV would be suitable for the fund. But we need to find other projects. The research fund is the first step; then there will be the defense capability fund. It will be a big step for European defense. Many questions are still open. Among them, who manages and who allocates the funds. 

How are relations with the U.S. with Donald Trump as president?
The relations founded on data exchange and foreign military sales, such as the C-130 and Reaper, are not called into question. We watched with interest the U.S. position at the NATO summit and elsewhere. There has been a positive effect, with Mr. Trump delivering something like an electric shock to Europe. That may speed things up for European defense. The new American administration is very active in exports. The American approach is much more aggressive. It is up to us to be even better at exports.

What is the outlook on the submarine program with Australia? 
We are on track for the development contract to be signed by the end of the year. With the Australians, we have open and direct exchange. We are engaged, government and industry together, to make this contract a success. This is part of a genuine strategic vision. We are deploying teams in Adelaide. We have common interests and a historical solidarity. Maybe the main difference is that Australians prefer a rugby team of 13 rather than 15.   
How do you see Volvo's sale of Renault Trucks Defense?
We would like an industrial player rather than a private equity firm. A private equity company milks it for the cash and then sells it for capital gain. That does not interest us. We are on programs that run for 30 years. RTD  is part of the Scorpion program, which could run to 2070 if the equipment lasts as long as the VAB [troop carrier]. We want a long-term partner which plays a full role in the Scorpion adventure and [is] ready to take part in a European consolidation in land systems. 

What if the Belgian company CMI won the tender? 
We will see. It is an industrial company. There are no a priori.

What is your view of spending 2 percent of gross domestic product on defense?  
It depends on the GDP. [French] President [Emmanuel] Macron's strong baseline is to relaunch and grow the economy while respecting the need to balance the budget. Now let's get to work. A defense and security review will be conducted quickly, which will lead to a multiyear defense budget, which will be sent next year for parliamentary approval. 

What is your reply to a request from Airbus CEO Tom Enders to ease the penalty payments on the A400M transport plane?
We take a pragmatic approach. What we need is to have many planes, which fly well and reliably. That is what the Air Force needs. Industry has to respect the deal, which was renegotiated in 2011. 

How do you see export prospects?
France has a comprehensive offer, relying on leading-edge technology covering all air, sea, land, and space. The Paris Air Show gives the opportunity to display some of our best combat proven aircraft with their equipment and weapons — Rafale, Tiger, NH90, Caracal and A400M.  

On the Ministry for the Armed Forces display, we will present how we prepare for the future. Visitors will discover Rafale's future technological capabilities, meet innovators, explore the impact of new technology, such as artificial intelligence, and will be immersed in the preparation of tomorrow's combat aviation.  Export is a major stake for us.