COLOGNE, Germany — A lingering dispute between German lawmakers and Airbus could nix immediate plans to move forward with a future Franco-German-Spanish fighter aircraft, Defense News has learned.
The kerfuffle goes back to a February request for information by members of the Bundestag’s Budget Committee. Citing the government’s role as a major shareholder in the company, lawmakers called on the administration to provide in-depth information about Airbus locations, programs and management equities throughout Europe.
Airbus is one of two prime contractors for the Future Combat Air System, an ambitious project to field a sixth-generation fighter aircraft by 2040. The envisioned weapon also includes new sensors, drones and a complex data infrastructure, making it Europe’s preeminent industrial project for decades to come.
Lawmakers in Berlin are worried that German defense-industry interests, presumably channeled through Airbus, could get the short shrift once substantial contracts are up for grabs amid French competition, led by Dassault.
The Budget Committee reiterated its request for the company deep dive on June 5, when members approved the initial batch of funds for the FCAS program: $37 million for a study on propulsion options.
Lawmakers inserted a note into their approval text that makes answering the February request a condition for entering into follow-on agreements with France.
Meanwhile, officials in Paris and Berlin have been planning signing ceremonies for such pacts with Ursula von der Leyen and Florence Parly, the German and French defense ministers, respectively, at the Paris Air Show in mid-June. It’s expected the pair will ink the concept study plan and a key governance document called the framework agreement.
Meanwhile, the Spanish defense minister, Margarita Robles, is expected to be on hand to sign the program’s memorandum of understanding, a more high-level, vague text beginning Madrid’s road to full participation.
As of Friday, lawmakers had yet to receive the requested information on Airbus, which is to include an analysis of management personnel down to the third tier throughout different locations, separated by programs and individual job functions. As June 10 is federal holiday in Germany, that leaves four business days next week before the Paris Air Show begins.
An Airbus spokesman told Defense News on Friday the company is working to resolve the issue and is coordinating with the government.
A Defence Ministry spokesman did not immediately return an emailed request for comment.
Documents obtained by Defense News suggest that a previous back-and-forth between the Budget Committee and Airbus, through the Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy, left a bit of bad blood, raising the question of whether the company will comply at all.
While executives provided some information — forwarded in a confidential letter to the Bundestag by the ministry on April 26 — Airbus largely claims the detailed data demanded by the committee would needlessly reveal competitive secrets.
“Airbus, in return, asks for information about the background of the request,” the company’s written response states. “The question must be raised whether other companies where the German government is a shareholder, like Deutsche Bahn [the German rail service], is subject to similar requests.”
The company claims to have given the administration a detailed personnel breakdown by subsidiary and nationalities in 2018, which was also offered to committee members. According to Airbus, no lawmakers were interested.
Airbus Defence and Space, which would lead the conglomerate’s work on FCAS, is based in Ottobrunn near Munich, Germany. As of December 2018, roughly 40 percent of the subsidiary’s employees were based in Germany, around 22 percent in France, 27 percent in Spain and 12 percent in the United Kingdom, the company wrote to lawmakers in April.
As the FCAS program progresses, Budget Committee members want the government in Berlin to safeguard a 50-50 cost and workshare plan with France.
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.