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MBDA moves away from saturated U.S. missile market

March 15, 2017 (Photo Credit: Alain Jocard/AFP/Getty Images)
Correction: A previous version of this story misidentified Dominique Fillard, who is the MBDA's financial controller. A previous version also mischaracterized relations between MBDA and Raytheon, the former of which is negotiating against the latter .

PARIS — The U.S. may be the biggest single market for missiles, but its domination by domestic players Lockheed Martin and Raytheon has led MBDA to stage a partial retreat, according to the chairman and CEO of the European missile manufacturer.

America accounts for some 40 percent of world sales, but that is effectively a “closed” market, which MBDA has found “extremely difficult,” Antoine Bouvier told journalists March 15. That world market excludes Russia and China, which are off limits to Western arms sales.

Boeing and Lockheed each hold some 20-25 percent of the world market, and the European missile maker last year brought its stake close to 20 percent, backed by €4.7 billion of orders compared to €5.2 billion in 2015.

MBDA plans to hold on to its share and aims to increase annual sales to €4 billion by 2020, from the €3 billion reported for 2016.

The company has effectively won access to the U.S. joint strike fighter program with Britain’s tests of the advanced short-range air-to-air missile for the Royal Air Force and Royal Navy, said Robbin Laird of ICSA, a consulting firm based in Washington and Paris. That U.K. interest opens the market for other operators of the F-35B.

There is also the Meteor on the Eurofighter Typhoon, which acts as a “weapons carrier” by drawing on the F-35 to identify targets for the long-range missile, he said. “This is a significant weapons opportunity,” he said, referring to the tactical interplay between the two jets.

The European company will remain in the U.S. but take a more selective approach, Bouvier said.

That includes tests of fitting the Brimstone missile on the Boeing Apache attack helicopter for the U.K., said financial controller Dominique Fillard.

MBDA will focus on a greater corporate integration in Britain, France, Germany, Italy and Spain, the key countries in Europe, which accounts for 20 percent of the world market. The German unit will be reorganized to come under closer control.

Those European nations represent “an access tied to sovereignty and access to a critical military capability,” he said. MBDA would be a “partner” rather than just a supplier to those key countries.

A move toward European industrial consolidation may be helped by a clause in the 2010 Anglo-French Lancaster House treaty which allows other countries to sign up to “mutual dependence,” Fillard said.

That interdependence paved the way for MBDA to open eight centers of excellence equally shared between the U.K. and France, underpinned by an “absolutely revolutionary approach” enabling a “global licence” to ship sensitive equipment freely across the English Channel.

Exports to the rest of the world account for the remaining 40 percent of sales, he said. Development and building missiles funded by the European nations for their own air forces helped the company to attack export markets.

In exports, Qatar has yet to pay the deposit for the contracts signed in 2016 for an extended range version of the Italian Marte and French Exocet MM40 block 3 anti-ship missiles, according to Fillard. That deal with Doha was MBDA’s largest foreign sale last year. No details were given on the value of the order. 

The Middle East is the most important region for exports, with Asia-Pacific also significant, he said. India is vital, due to the Rafale sale and other programs. MBDA is setting up local joint ventures to meet the Make in India requirement.

In the Middle East, MBDA faces “serious competition” from Turkey and Russia, which have teamed up, Laird said. But the European company has an advantage over U.S. competitors as the Washington approach is to sell U.S. weapons on U.S. platforms. MBDA missiles can work on different platforms, which gives the European firm a “strategic advantage” over Lockheed and Raytheon.

Asked about MBDA’s pitch to Saudi Arabia for an air defense missile, Bouvier said, “We have currently no negotiations.”

MBDA had pitched its systems against Thales, which offered an upgrade of its short range air defense system operated by Saudi Arabia.

In Poland, Warsaw is still in negotiation on the Raytheon Patriot system. “That has not concluded,” he said. MBDA remains present and is cooperating with Lockheed and negotiating against Raytheon.

In a Polish plan for a short range air defense missile, MBDA has signed a cooperation agreement with local partner PGZ, which is not exclusive, and is in talks for a joint offer, he said.

On Colombia’s planned buy of four warships, there was little concern at MBDA on a requirement for a 30 km range for anti-air missiles, an industry source said. The company expects to receive a French order for a new generation version of the Mica, which could be available when Colombia finds funds for a naval order.

MBDA hit a 2016 profit margin of 10 percent of sales and expects sales to rise this year. Discussions about sale to the Egyptian navy to arm the Gowind corvette are “well advanced,” Bouvier said.

The order backlog rose to €15.9 billion from €15.1 billion, with a book-to-bill, or ratio of orders to sales, of 1.6. France orders accounted for €1.3 billion, Britain for €1.6 billion.

MBDA is a private company jointly owned by Airbus (37.5 percent), BAE Systems (37.5 percent) and Leonardo (25 percent).
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