PARIS — European missile maker MBDA looks like it will score three out of three major government deals for a longer range Aster air defense system, an anti-tank weapon and a helicopter-borne anti-ship missile.
The April 29 publication of the French defense white paper on defense and national security cleared the way for the government to commit to new programs, which had been waiting for decisions for many months.
MBDA Chief Executive Antoine Bouvier in March said those three programs are vital for the manufacturer’s future, with the company hoping to get the green light this year.
France is talking to British and Italian partners to develop the new technology (NT) version of the Aster 30 Block 1, a French source briefed on the subject said.
The UK is looking to improve its Type 45 destroyer, and the Aster 30 NT could be part of an upgrade of the ship’s combat system, the source said.
In London, a Defence Ministry spokesman said talks are in the early stages with Paris and Rome on extending the Aster program.
“We can confirm UK interest in understanding the French and Italian forward program for Aster new technology and how future co-operative opportunities could be exploited between the three nations,” the spokesman said.
“Discussions are at an exploratory stage between France, Italy and the UK and are linked to not just Aster NT but also how the three nations will support the Aster capability through life,” he said.
In Rome, a source said a debate on the Aster NT was still going on inside the Italian defense establishment, with no decision made yet.
The NT upgrade would allow the Aster 30 to hit enemy missiles with a range of 1,000 kilometers. The Block 1 model used by the French and Italian armies can intercept incoming missiles with a range of 600 kilometers, such as the Scud B.
Development of the Aster would be sensible, a senior analyst said, as there is a move toward extended air defense systems and Britain lacks an alternative product, other than to buy American.
“That would be the most logical way to tackle it,” said Nick Witney, senior policy fellow at think tank European Council for Foreign Relations (ECFR).
Witney and Olivier de France co-authored an ECFR research paper titled “Europe’s Strategic Cacophony,” published April 25.
Other options for MBDA would be to co-develop Aster if the missile were picked by an export client such as Turkey or Qatar, the French source said.
The NT is on the roadmap to the Aster Block 2, which would intercept weapons that have a range of 3,000 kilometers.
A Block 2 weapon could be delivered some time after 2020, but first a deal must be struck for the intermediate NT version.
On a new anti-tank missile, the French source said it is extremely unlikely France will select the US-built Javelin over MBDA for the missile moyenne portée (medium-range missile) program.
MBDA’s Bourges plant is in central France, where jobs are scarce, and a pick of Javelin would go down badly politically.
A Lockheed Martin-Raytheon joint venture makes the Javelin, which arms US and British forces.
The US Javelin joint venture has pitched the weapon to French authorities, which are looking to buy 3,000 missiles to replace the Milan.
On the third major deal, France has said it will sign up for cooperation with Britain on an anti-ship missile, known as anti-navire léger here and future air-to-surface guided weapon across the English Channel.
The ANL contract will be British. The first part of production will be in the UK and later in France, with Paris looking at which helicopter the missile will arm and when.
That should allow MBDA to consolidate operations under the one complex weapons program, Witney said.
MBDA has used company money to pay for work on the anti-ship and anti-tank weapons, Bouvier said in an interview with LaTribune.com, a business news website, published March 12.
BAE Systems and EADS each own 37.5 percent of MBDA; Finmeccanica owns the remaining 25 percent.
In other multinational programs, France is due to sign a delayed contract for 34 NH90s for the Army by the end of May.
That NH90 deal could be worth around €1 billion (US $1.3 billion).
The NH90 is built by NHIndustries, a consortium that comprises Eurocopter (62.5 percent), AgustaWestland (32 percent) and Fokker (5.5 percent).
France will also discuss with Germany what to do with the Tiger attack helicopter, which both countries have bought from Eurocopter. Paris has signed for 40 of the upgraded appui et déstruction (close support) model but will see how many are really needed.
The options are to put the surplus Tigers in a common pool, resell or mothball. Germany has cut its Tiger order from 80 to 57.
In other aircraft programs, the new target for the Airbus A400M airlifter is 15 aircraft by 2017 for the French Air Force, fewer than planned, with a review after that. France has not signaled a cut in the 50 aircraft ordered from Airbus Military.
The A400M is undergoing civil and military certification, and one of the planes is due to fly at the Paris Air Show, opening June 16, and might also be in the fly past on the July 14 national holiday.
Andrew Chuter in London and Tom Kington in Rome contributed to this report.