COLOGNE, Germany — The French and German defense chiefs announced a contract award to Airbus and Dassault Aviation on Wednesday to narrow down the two governments’ vision of a common, sixth-generation aircraft.

The announcement moves the ambitious Future Combat Air System project further along, authorizing the contractor duo to come up with more concrete concepts for the future weapon’s main elements. Those include the manned aircraft at the center of the project, unmanned drones swarming around it and the data infrastructure tying all elements together.

The two-year deal is worth €65 million (U.S. $74 million) and is meant to lay the groundwork for demonstrator programs to be launched at the Paris Air Show in June, according to a joint Airbus-Dassault statement.

“FCAS is one of the most ambitious European defense programs of the century,” Airbus Defence and Space chief Dirk Hoke said in a statement. “With today’s contract signature, we are finally setting this high-technology program fully in motion.”

Dassault head Eric Trappier touted his company’s chops as "systems architect and integrator” in the statement — a likely reference to the prized job of overseeing how all components work together. “This new step is the cornerstone to ensure tomorrow’s European strategic autonomy,” he said.

The FCAS program is meant to replace France's Rafale and Germany's Eurofighter aircraft sometime around 2040. Officials have termed the envisioned aircraft a sixth-generation weapon. With it comes the ambition for the European industry to skip an aircraft generation, having never built a plane on par with the F-35.

For the moment, the program is riding on the wave of enthusiasm for the Franco-German defense relationship envisioned by French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. At the same time, cultural differences are beginning to bubble up that register anywhere between one country’s boisterous assertiveness in global defense policy and the other’s propensity for calculated hedging.

For example, French industry executives have complained that defense cooperation with Germany could hurt their chances of exporting the joint products to countries that Berlin considers rogue nations because of human rights abuses.

Meanwhile, the French and German defense secretaries, Florence Parly and Ursula von der Leyen respectively, also announced Wednesday that a team of Franco-German engine makers, made up of Safran and MTU, would spearhead development of the future aircraft’s propulsion system. The two governments expect to sign a contract for an engine demonstrator in mid-2019, according to a statement from the French Armed Forces Ministry.

Parly and von der Leyen inaugurated a new Safran plan in Paris Wednesday where engineers will develop a new generation of turbine blades. The company received a €115 million study contract toward that end.

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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