PARIS — French national sovereignty rests on maintaining a strong defense industrial and technology basis, which requires long-term political support, senior defense executives and the arms procurement chief said June 16.
"The DGA's essential responsibility is to guarantee to our political leaders that the defense industrial and technology base is maintained for the long-term pursuit of programs needed to counter threats and the evolution of threats," said Laurent Collet-Billon, head of direction générale de l'armement, the French procurement office.
Collet-Billon was speaking on whether sovereignty can prevail without a strong industry at the Paris Air Forum, a conference and trade show organized by Forum Media with business website La Tribune.
Technology takes a long time to mature, with studies needed today to ensure large programs can be operational in 2040, he said.
"These are time periods that political men and women are not generally used to dealing with," he said. "We are in a slightly extraordinary world compared to the everyday world which our leaders govern."
Employment and industrial capacity are also significant factors, alongside national sovereignty he said.
Large programs face lengthy development, but there is also a breakthrough such as digital technology, and the two must be managed together, he said. Small and medium companies are key in digital discoveries.
Arms exports are needed to underpin national sovereignty, as the domestic and European markets are too narrow, he said. There is "massive competition" from America and China, such that the "obsolete competition" between MBDA and Thales is "a shot in the foot," he said. The U.S. has an annual $75 billion research and development budget, double the entire French defense budget, while the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency has a budget of $35 billion, he said.
Hervé Guillou, chairman and CEO of DCNS, naval shipbuilder, said he disagreed with a recent report that argued that exports led France to a dependence on client nations.
The report was published by think tank Institut des Relations Internationales et Stratégiques.
Sovereignty was based on two conditions, Guillou said. Mastering a "spectrum of capabilities," including nuclear deterrent, and a "viable economy" based on "acceptable prices, he said.
A strong economy needed exports, he added. An example was an Australian order for submarines, which plugged a four- to six-year gap between building the Barracuda attack submarine and the next generation ballistic missile boat, he said.
Design offices at Lorient and Cherbourg, western and northern France, relied on exports and the French order for an intermediate frigate, he said.
Exports helped cut production costs, he said, pointing to British nuclear ballistic missile submarines costing 30 percent more than French boats because London had not signed foreign deals since 1992.
France has sold abroad Agosta and Scorpene diesel-electric attack boats and won a tender to deliver 12 oceanic submarines to Australia. France co-developed with Spain the Scorpene.
For Antoine Bouvier, chairman and CEO of European missile maker MBDA, "sovereignty is a political concept," with strategic autonomy set out in the white paper, or defense and security review. A nuclear capability is "at the heart of the heart" of that sovereignty.
In industry, MBDA contributed to strategic autonomy by "mastering technology and critical military capability," he said, pointing to the company’s work on ASMP-A, an airborne missile tipped with a nuclear warhead.
"Nuclear is national and will stay national," he said.
Exports accounting for 50 percent of annual sales is effectively a standard for the defense industry, he said. For DCNS, export competition is mainly European as there is relatively little U.S. competition in warships, unlike MBDA which faces competition in missiles from America and the rest of the world, he said.
Two strategic concepts for MBDA are anti access/area denial and deep-strike weapons, he said.
Bouvier said, "It was not a coincidence" that Collet-Billon signed with his British counterpart a contract to study a
Future Anti-Surface Guided Weapon, known as
, on the eve of London's announcement of invoking
withdrawal from the European Union under Article 50 of the EU Lisbon Treaty.
That showed Anglo-French cooperation on a weapon strategic as deep-strike was going ahead despite Brexit, he said.
The second concept is a missile system to deliver "a maximum of protection" for deployed troops, he said.
That represented a French sovereignty as the Aster missile gave Paris an independence of overseas deployment without relying on the US to field the Patriot missile to protect French troops, an industry executive said.