Ready and Waiting: A French soldier deployed in Mali waits with a Milan anti-tank missile launcher near Diabaly in January. France is seeking a replacement for the Milans. (Agence France-Presse)
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PARIS — The US joint venture that builds the Javelin anti-tank missile came through town recently to introduce a new senior executive, underscoring American industry’s hot pursuit of a contract for a medium-range weapon for the French Army, sources briefed on the issue said.
The Javelin joint venture between Lockheed Martin and Raytheon presented its new business development manager for France, Ken Alexander, the week of April 15 to officials of the Direction Générale de l’Armement (DGA) procurement office and Army headquarters, two sources said.
The company executives gave an update on the Javelin modernization program in a bid to replace the French Army’s aging MBDA Milan missiles. The visit follows a presentation by the joint venture in June.
That puts Javelin in head-to-head combat with European missile maker MBDA, which hopes to develop and build a new weapon under the planned missile moyenne portée (MMP), medium-range missile program.
“MBDA is still the front-runner,” one source said.
But the Javelin joint venture is still pursuing a French order. Up to now, the requirement has been for 3,000 replacement missiles.
The US side raises questions as to whether there will be money to develop a new weapon and whether MBDA will be able to deliver by mid-2017, when the Milan is taken out of service, the source said.
MBDA confirmed that work started on MMP in 2010, with some funding from the DGA in late 2011 for the assessment phase, a company spokesman said.
“Work is on track for delivery to start in 2017 to avoid any capability gap when the Milan is withdrawn from the French Army,” the spokesman said.
Although a program decision has not been taken due to financial uncertainty, planners see MBDA’s role as a given in the upcoming military budget law, a defense specialist said. That’s partly because MBDA acts as a channel for British-French cooperation, which could one day lead to a common long-range version of the MMP that could replace the US Hellfire on the Tiger attack helicopter, the specialist said. Such cooperation between Britain and France makes a selection of the US-made Javelin seem impossible, the specialist said.
For the Americans, a lack of French defense money is seen as a powerful ally in their push for the Javelin. For MBDA, however, there are hopes the ministerial investment committee will decide on a program launch of MMP in June or July, with July 21 ringed in on some calendars.
MBDA Chief Executive Antoine Bouvier has said MMP is one of the three big decisions this year, along with an anti-ship missile dubbed anti-navire léger, and boosting range on the Aster Block 1 air defense weapon.
A second defense specialist said the defense staff chief sees the MMP as “the priority of priorities,” more so than the anti-ship missile.
Javelin's Pros and Cons
The Javelin joint venture, meanwhile, points to the US Army’s order for a modernized model to enter service in 2016.
That clears the way for a first delivery to France in 2016 or 2017, and in time for the Milan replacement date.
Under the US Javelin cost reduction initiative, which would cut unit prices by 25 percent, the request is to extend the range beyond the existing requirement of 2.5 kilometers of the current model.
In firings on a US Army test range late last year, the Javelin in-service model hit targets at 4.7 kilometers, with one missile missing the target and going out to 5 kilometers, the second source said. Therefore, the tests show the current model already has the longer range.
The Javelin, however, is designed as a fire-and-forget weapon, while the French Army calls for a man in the loop to limit harm to civilians. The joint venture offers fire-and-forget in Phase I, and adaptation to French needs under a possible MBDA co-development in a later phase.
The US Army is expected to keep the Javelin in its inventory to 2050, which allows the European local partner to sign up for a spiral development if France picked the weapon.
The US is open to co-development, seen as a necessity given budget cuts. The joint venture is also negotiating with the US government for a multiyear contract for the Javelin, intended to lower costs.
Another argument for the Javelin is French interoperability with British and US forces, which both use the weapon and are often deployed alongside in multinational missions, the first source said.
French officials have ruled out the Rafael Spike missile for undisclosed reasons, the source said.
MBDA displayed a model of the MMP at its stand at the special operations forces innovations network seminar, a trade show and conference near Bordeaux, which ran April 9-11.
The European company has signed an export contract for an undisclosed client for its Milan extended response weapon, a company executive said at the show. Milan ER, developed using company money, lost to Javelin in 2009, when the French Army picked the US missile for troops in Afghanistan.
Anti-tank weapons are among the arms key to special operations forces, according to a glossy brochure produced by the French special operations command.
President François Hollande has said the 2014 defense budget will be the same as this year’s, but there is still huge doubt how that figure will be reached, leaving uncertainty over what new programs will be picked.