Europe’s top missile maker emerged from the recent publication of the French government’s austerity-driven defense white paper with three big development programs intact — and an endorsement from the administration of President François Hollande that the company’s strategy to restructure its French and UK capabilities in France toward specialization and mutual dependency could be a model for the defense sector.
The white paper’s support for Europe, and particularly the 2010 Anglo-French defense treaty, would have been music to the ears of MBDA Chief Executive Antoine Bouvier, whose company has assets and shareholders in Britain, France, Italy, Spain and Germany.
Challenges remain, though. MBDA has to nail down contracts for the three programs confirmed by the white paper: a longer-range Aster air defense system, a new medium-range anti-tank missile and the anti-ship missile that France is launching with Britain. It also must resolve the future of the Medium Extended Air Defense System (MEADS) missile program in the wake of the US decision to pull the plug on funding.
Outside of Europe, a big deal to develop a short-range surface-to-air missile with India awaits approval from New Delhi, and Bouvier admits efforts to make a significant breakthrough into the US market are taking longer than expected.
Q. What was the strategic message you took from the French government’s decision to approve three key missile programs in its recent defense white paper?
A. As a company with shareholders and assets across Europe, it was very important for MBDA that when the white paper was published, it was Euro-minded, and it was. Clearly, the French government has a focus and vision about Europe at the industrial and strategic level. That was clear in the missile decision taken in its support of the defense treaty with the UK. The missile sector that MBDA leads in France and in the UK is specifically referred to in the document as the model for integrating the defense industry in Europe. What is also key for us was the white paper’s recognition that the defense industry is an essential component of France’s wider strategic policy.
Q. How crucial to your integration aims was the French decision to go ahead with the launch of the anti-ship missile program with the British?
A. It’s provided confirmation of the decision made in the 2010 Anglo-French defense treaty to use the missile sector, and ANL/FASGW [anti-navire léger/future air-to-surface guided weapon] in particular, as the test case to prove the feasibility of a specialization and a policy of mutually agreed dependency. Our model is now confirmed as a possible template for further integration in Europe, and this was taken into account in the French decision to move ahead with the program in spite of difficult economic conditions and very difficult timing. France also confirmed through this program its commitment to Anglo-French cooperation.
Q. What happens now to test the mutual dependency and specialization model between France and the UK?
A. The ANL/FASGW launch will trigger implementation of our centers-of-excellence strategy. We have identified 12 centers in the Anglo-French context. The most optimized capability in the two countries will be used, depending on the requirement. This is something new in Europe. Previously, we have had cooperation through programs. Now, we will remove duplication with the integration of capabilities across two of our countries.
Four of the centers will offer specialized capabilities supplying French and British collaborative and national programs. France will be responsible for test benches and onboard computers; in the UK, it’s actuators and data links. It means each time we have a new program or a significant evolution of an existing program, we allocate activities in line with this.
Q. With Anglo-French operations working to one policy, and your German and Italian partners adhering to another set of rules, isn’t this an imperfect model on which to base European restructuring?
A. I would say it is a model in the making rather than an imperfect model, but it is taking time. The history of MBDA has been step-by-step consolidation into a European group. We make progress where we can, but we have to be pragmatic. We have an opportunity with the Anglo-French sector through the defense treaty and the initiative on the centers of excellence to move forward, and we are having discussions to extend what has been agreed to the other MBDA operations in Europe.
Q. When do you expect to get the new missile programs under contract?
A. The objective is to sign the ANL/FASGW anti-ship missile contract in the next few months, certainly by the end of this year. The higher-performance, new-technology version of the Aster 30 Block 1 [B1NT] will be 2014 at the earliest. B1NT is not just the development of a new missile, it is part of the global Aster evolutionary map, which now explicitly includes naval capability improvements. The missile moyenne portee [MMP] battlefield weapon has been confirmed as a priority, and we are setting out to get the program under contract by the end of the year.
Q. Is the MMP a French national program, or are you looking for partners?
A. For the moment, it’s a French program. But we also see that for other versions of the weapon, like a long-range model, we could open the program to cooperation from Europe and elsewhere.
Q. Will you be able to rescue anything from the MEADS program now that the US government has decided to end funding?
A. Cooperation between Italy and Germany on MEADS has allowed us to build high-level capabilities in this sector of extended air defense, and our plan is to build on these assets and propose to the two governments a follow-on to MEADS. US funding will continue up to 2014, and beyond that, we have to agree [on] the way forward with the German and Italian defense ministries. We are currently discussing several options, including finding new partners [identified as Poland by Italian government officials], and Lockheed Martin retaining participation in the next phase of the program.
Q. The Joint Strike Fighter program continues to mature, but so far, you have only the advanced, short-range, air-to-air missile (ASRAAM) signed up for integration. What progress are you making with other weapons for the F-35?
A. The feasibility of getting the Meteor air-to-air missile integrated on the platform has been confirmed by a UK Ministry of Defence study, and we are making good progress on having our weapon included as part of the upcoming Block 4 improvements on the F-35. We are having discussions with several F-35 partners to take the Meteor on the platform. Very positive discussions are ongoing with Lockheed Martin on integrating weapons like Brimstone, Storm Shadow and Spear.
Q. Does becoming a significant player in the US market remain a priority?
A. We may adjust our plans, but the US remains an important part of our strategy. It is taking more time than expected and is even more challenging in this time of budget restrictions. The constraints could bring with them opportunities if the customer is seeking more competition, combat-proven equipment and mature technologies.
Q. You have had a deal on the table with India since 2011 to develop short-range air defense missiles. What’s the position on that?
A. It’s our objective to get a decision this year on the short-range surface-to-air missile (SRSAM) program agreed with the Indian Defence Research and Development Organisation [DRDO]. You have to keep in mind this cooperation is just part of a much larger scheme involving radars [and] command-and-control [systems] which are 100 percent Indian, so the decision is not just on the missile, but the whole system. We have offered a significant amount of tech transfer for long-term cooperation on short-range air defense with DRDO.
We have other opportunities in India, including the Air Force’s down-selection of ASRAAM for their Jaguar strike aircraft. Those negotiations are continuing. Overall, MBDA, supported by our governments, is prepared to enter into large-scale, very ambitious, long-term technical cooperation with Indian partners. Foreign ownership limitations are certainly restricting the type of technology transfer that we could implement for this type of joint venture, but we think in the medium term, this will evolve into a more open scheme.
Q. What sort of company will MBDA look like in five years?
A. I want MBDA to be an even more global player with an extended product range and greater market coverage. We are looking for a strong position in India, as well as more partners and cooperations elsewhere outside Europe. It is also about strengthening our position inside Europe, starting with Spain. Poland also is very important.
In terms of integration of the company, we want to move further along the lines we are implementing on the Anglo-French defense treaty.
Q. What do you want your legacy to be when you leave MBDA?
A. Leaving MBDA is not on my agenda today, but when I do, it would be to depart having reinforced the company’s position as a global player and an industrial leader in Europe. ■
By Andrew Chuter in Paris.