WASHINGTON — Top defense leaders from France, Germany and Spain have formalized plans to begin the preliminary development phase for a lead plane under the Future Combat Air System program, committing their governments to spending billions of euros in the coming years.

The trilateral agreement, signed in Paris on Aug. 30, follows Germany’s parliamentary approval in June to invest nearly €4.5 billion (U.S. $5.3 billion) in the program through 2027. The other nations are expected to contribute similar amounts, though it’s unclear if France and Spain will finance separate, national industry programs — as planned by Berlin to the tune of €750 million — on FCAS-related technologies.

The program entails a new fighter aircraft, dubbed the Next-Generation Fighter, to be accompanied by a smattering of drones for reconnaissance and strike missions. A sophisticated network of data links, collectively known as a “combat cloud,” is meant to provide the glue between the flying program elements during operations, the idea goes.

The new agreement entails phases 1B and 2, covering research and development activities and the construction of an initial, flyable prototype.

German lawmakers have criticized the unusual sequence of events for the program, as they were asked before the summer break to clear the spending request without a chance to study an industry contract. Many of the program’s travails so far have played out between the major national players: Dassault for France, and Airbus for Germany.

The two companies previously disagreed on the degree of influence they would have in the program. Another sticking point has been the treatment of intellectual property rights, including the status of predeveloped components each company brings into the FCAS mix at the outset.

The German Defence Ministry suggested on Twitter on Aug. 31 that an accord was still not simply a formality. “Now it’s industry’s turn — come to an agreement,” the ministry tweeted.

German defense officials told lawmakers Aug. 30 that a deal among the companies would be forthcoming in September, with a chance for the Bundestag’s legislators to sign off once more.

French defense procurement office DGA is the government’s lead agency for all contractual matters. Officials there will eventually sign a final pact with Airbus, Dassault and Spain’s formal lead company, Indra, after all governments give the thumbs up.

The FCAS program comes with a huge amount of political ambition, as leaders in Berlin, Paris and Madrid have pinned much of the European Union’s newfound defense aspirations on its success. The high-level backing so far has managed to smooth over serious industry-level disagreements and cultural differences between Germany and France, in particular.

The French, who have long owned the industrial capacity to make jets on their own, have at times feared that German industry is out mostly to poach their know-how. The Germans, in turn, are suspicious that the French essentially could upgrade their Rafale fleet on Berlin’s dime.

Sebastian Sprenger is associate editor for Europe at Defense News, reporting on the state of the defense market in the region, and on U.S.-Europe cooperation and multi-national investments in defense and global security. Previously he served as managing editor for Defense News. He is based in Cologne, Germany.

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