PARIS — France will develop and build a new anti-ship missile with the UK, taking a big step in bilateral cooperation that allows European missile maker MBDA to consolidate industrial capabilities, Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said.
“The French-British initiative, launched with the Lancaster House treaties of November 2010, is an excellent example which others will follow I hope,” Le Drian said in an April 29 speech at the Ecole Militaire staff college as he presented the white paper on defense and national security. “I extended it with agreements signed last July in the area of future combat drones and tactical drones, and furthermore by the inclusion, totally new, of the anti-ship missile in our planning, to accelerate the integration of our missile industries.”
That was the first official confirmation of France’s involvement in the missile program, which MBDA managers consider vital for an industrial reorganization spanning both sides of the channel.
For months, Britain and MBDA have lobbied France to join the program for a helicopter-borne missile, dubbed anti-navire léger (ANL) here and future anti-surface guided weapon (FASGW) (Heavy) in the UK.
A French commitment “puts the football on the pitch,” a source briefed on the subject said.
The commitment to partner with the British appears to bring to an end mounting frustration among UK Defence Ministry officials and politicians caused by the lengthy debate across the English Channel over whether the cash-strapped French would strike a deal with the British.
Industry sources in the UK said it could take several months for the two governments to thrash out the details over timing, spending profiles and other issues and then get on contract with MBDA.
The new program would formalize a mutual interdependence between Britain and France in weapons technology.
The total development cost is €500 million (US $657 million) shared equally between London and Paris, with a further €150 million for France to integrate the missile on French Navy helicopters, the source said. Much of the French cost comes from flight trials to demonstrate safe firing and software to link the weapon to onboard sensors.
The contract will include development and manufacture of the ANL and FASGW (H), the source said.
The missile program will go to a bilateral high-level working group this summer for approval, the source said. A number of options will be submitted that will decide “how far and fast we go,” the source said.
A great deal is at stake, a senior researcher said. “A failure in the missile sector would undermine the credibility of the whole process begun three years ago, at least at the equipment and industry level,” said Hélène Masson, senior research fellow with think tank Fondation pour la Récherche Stratégique. The missile sector was intended to serve as a model for cooperation for other sectors, she said.
“If this difference in the decision-making timetables between the UK and French defense ministries shows the difficulties in aligning political agendas and the launch of equipment programs, it also shows that a cooperative approach makes it more difficult for one of the partners to cancel, and that, de facto, allows a better way of ‘securing’ a program,” she said.
A joint program is important for MBDA, since a common missile allows an industrial convergence of MBDA UK and MBDA France, at a time when the company seeks export deals and is faced with an “American offensive in Europe and emerging markets,” Masson said.
An industrial source said that, given the relatively high cost of the NH90 naval helicopter, it is likely France will first fit the missile on the Panther.
MBDA declined comment.
In February 2010, the company signed up in the UK for One Complex Weapons, an overarching strategy aimed at cutting missile costs by 30 percent by 2020. The company knew it had to integrate operations in Britain and France, but that called for a common program that would allow a specialization around 12 centers of excellence.
MBDA Chief Executive Antoine Bouvier has identified four of those: onboard computer, data link, actuators for moving missile fins and testbench.
Some French Navy commanders and procurement officials argued that ANL is not a priority given the budget crisis and that a new weapon is not needed until 2020.
The British, however, want a weapon for the AgustaWestland-built Wildcat helicopter, due to enter service with the Royal Navy in 2015.
The Royal Navy now faces the prospect of fielding the Wildcat without its main missile armament until much later in the decade.
That’s not entirely the fault of the French, but as things stand, the helicopter could enter service with just a heavy machine gun and torpedoes.
Several options to strengthen the Wildcat’s armaments are being looked at, including speeding delivery of the FASGW (Light).
Thales UK hopes to be under contract this summer to develop and produce its lightweight multi-role missile to fulfill the FASGW (L) requirement, said David Beatty, the managing director of the company’s Belfast, Northern Ireland, operation, where the weapon is being developed.
Thales could have the weapon ready for service by 2017 if required by the British MoD, Beatty said.
A spokeswomen for the UK MoD said “the in-service date for both FASGW types will be confirmed later this year and it is too early to be specific about contingency plans” on Wildcat.
For the French, a decision had to be referred to the highest level, landing on president François Hollande’s desk, and it was one that ties its military industry more closely to Britain. The answer was a green light.
“We have everything to gain from interdependencies freely entered into,” Le Drian said.
Andrew Chuter in London contributed to this report.