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U.K. Offers France New Deal to Kick-Start Missile Project

Nov. 11, 2012 - 12:37PM   |  
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LONDON and PARIS — Britain has offered to fund the start of a delayed Anglo-French program to develop a new helicopter-borne anti-ship missile in order to avoid the collapse of the deal from undermining the 2010 defense treaty between the two nations.

Under the British proposal, London will provide front-end funding of the Future Air-Surface Guided Weapon (FASGW) (Heavy) missile, with France paying its share of the total development cost at the back end of the 400 million euro ($510,000) program. The existing plan calls for both sides to fund the program simultaneously.

France calls its version of the weapon Anti-Navire Leger, or light anti-ship missile.

People familiar with the proposal say the missile’s delay means it might not be ready in time to meet the in-service date of the maritime version of the new Wildcat helicopter, scheduled to be operational with the Royal Navy in early 2015.

London is applying “gentle, firm and unrelenting pressure to help France make the right decision for the long term,” one British defense official said.

British authorities see the missile program as the “first and only step on a corporatist basis” to a bilateral industrial rationalization, he said.

If France opts out, it could undermine British confidence in cooperation, with political and industrial consequences, the official said.

The other major weapons development program being pursued by the two sides — a possible jointly developed medium-altitude, long-endurance UAV — is also proceeding at a slow pace.

French and U.K. defense ministers discussed the FASGW (Heavy) program’s fate during a meeting late last month.

That meeting followed a French parliamentary finance committee rejection of an attempt to provide 10 million euros next year to launch the program, parliamentary records show.

Member of Parliament François Cornut-Gentille proposed an amendment to the 2013 defense budget, arguing that France needed to show commitment to cooperating with Britain under the 2010 Lancaster House Treaty.

“If we renounce the FASGW (Heavy) program, we won’t have a program in this area,” he said.

The French share of the FASGW (Heavy) program was 35 million euros to 40 million euros a year for five years, Cornut-Gentille said in the committee meeting. Costs would double if France waited two or three years before starting development, he said.

London has made it clear it would look to the U.S. for an alternative if Paris fails to commit next year, he said. “Financial virtue meets with diplomatic interest,” he said.

The French don’t have a requirement to equip their NH90 helicopters with a missile until 2020, so the program is not seen as a priority for the defense minister, French MP Jean Launay said in the committee meeting.

“Any decision on the anti-ship missile has to be taken in the context of the defense white paper,” a spokesman for the Direction Générale de l’Armement procurement office said Nov. 8.

The white paper, which will reset strategic objectives, is due by the end of the year.

If Cornut-Gentille’s amendment had been approved, funds would be needed in following years, pre-empting the outcome of the defense white paper.

The amendment proposed using money from the budget for military colleges, including the elite Ecole Polytéchnique, and the defense diplomacy network.

Committee Chairman Pierre-Alain Muet voted against the amendment; he said the missile program was premature and he disliked the idea of taking funds from the colleges, particularly the Polytéchnique. Muet is an economics professor at the Polytechnique.

“The U.K. understands [French Defense Minister Jean-Yves] Le Drian’s position. He wants the full picture before he commits,” the British official said.

The French Navy has never had the type of capability FASGW (Heavy) would provide. Given the financial strictures, the Navy wants to preserve capabilities it already has.

But London sees a “domino effect” if Paris walks away from the FASGW (Heavy).

Asked if Britain had put a funding deal on the table to help smooth out French budget problems, a U.K. Defence Ministry spokeswoman said: “We remain committed to procuring a weapon for the Wildcat helicopter with France. Having successfully completed the assessment phase, MBDA [is] now ready to proceed to the demonstration and manufacture stages.”

The British see FASGW (Heavy) linked to the planned midlife upgrade to the MBDA Storm Shadow/Scalp cruise missile and other potential complex weapons program.

The missile industry restructuring under the “One Complex Weapons” plan being pursued by missile maker MBDA would be delayed probably until 2015, the British official said.

MBDA — which is jointly owned by BAE Systems, EADS and Finmeccanica — declined to comment.

Delays to the FASGW (Heavy) program have potential military consequences for the British.

A replacement for the aging Sea Skua missile, FASGW (Heavy) is planned to enter service onboard the Royal Navy’s variant of the AgustaWestland Wildcat helicopter now in the final stages of development. Wildcat is on schedule to be delivered to the British Army in 2014, followed a year later by the Navy’s first surface combatant maritime rotorcraft variant.

The Royal Navy is scheduled to arm its Wildcats first with the FASGW (Heavy) followed by a much smaller Thales UK weapon known as the lightweight multirole missile (LMM) to fulfill the FASGW (Light) requirement.

Sources familiar with the weapons programs said that because of the delays, the British were considering leading with the LMM. The first LMMs are expected to be delivered next year.

Israeli-developed Spike missiles, MBDA’s own maritime version of the Brimstone and other potential suppliers are among the options being looked at as a backstop if FASGW (Heavy) runs into deeper problems, two sources said.

The British MoD spokeswoman said it was “premature to speculate about unilateral or other alternative action at this stage.”

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