COLOGNE, Germany — The defense chiefs of France, Belgium and Cyprus have signed an agreement to pursue a common anti-tank missile meant for wider adoption in Europe — an effort that puts the spotlight once again on accusations of protectionism in defense programs here.
The three defense ministers inked the cooperation deal for the Beyond-Line-of-Sight Land Battlefield missile project on the sidelines of a meeting of European defense chiefs in Helsinki, Finland, in late August. The goal is to develop a new “family” of missiles for integration on an “extensive variety of platforms,” according to the official project description. It would be operated by a “dedicated users’ club” under a common European doctrine for such weapons.
Pan-European missile company MBDA has claimed the project as its own since officials announced it under the Permanent Structured Cooperation framework, or PESCO, in fall 2018. The vendor wants to sell its Missile Moyenne Portée, or MMP, to other armies besides the French, eyeing a far-reaching partnership with Belgium on ground vehicles as a potential avenue.
Aside from being handed a potentially lucrative market on the continent, products or concepts picked as PESCO leads can win sizable funding contributions from common coffers like the envisioned €13 billion (U.S. $14 billion) European Defence Fund, or EDF.
MBDA executives have danced around the question of how they came to be the quasi-incumbent for the missile project, arguing that the company is the only eligible manufacturer because the weapon is wholly developed and made in Europe. At the same time, company officials coyly painted the selection of the MMP weapon as a decision still up in the air.
That is because there is a formal solicitation process under the European Defence Industrial Development Programme with a closing date of Sept. 20. The process envisions weapons trials sometime in 2020 or 2021 funded by the European Union, according to an MBDA spokesman.
“The next step is that we hope to achieve this trial campaign and demonstrate the capability to inform future acquisitions from European nations,” the spokesman told Defense News.
The problem is, however, that several other European nations already have a different weapon in their arsenals: a variant of the Spike missile, made by Israel’s Rafael and sold in Europe by Germany-based Eurospike.
Over the summer, Estonia moved to buy the weapon under a €40 million deal, becoming what Rafael said is the 19th user within NATO and the EU. Germany, which seeks to drive Europe’s new defense posture alongside France, also relies on Spike — both the man-portable and the vehicle-mounted variants.
Eurospike officials at the DSEI defense trade expo in London, England, last week complained about being left out of the nascent European missile program. While the Spike weapon is entirely produced in Germany, it is based on Israeli technology, resulting in what one company executive in London estimated to be an overall ratio of roughly 70 percent European and 30 percent Israeli.
According to still-emerging rules for access to European defense projects, only members of the European Economic Area are eligible for EDF funding and collaboration-inducing mechanisms promised by PESCO. As it stands, Britain — after it leaves the EU — and its wares likely would be in, but the Israel connection means the Spike missile is out.
For now, Eurospike officials said they are closely watching the process. “I can’t imagine that they will just take the market by storm,” one executive said of MBDA and its missile offering.
With its industrial infighting, the anti-tank weapons serve as something of a test case for whether common projects set up under EU auspices can truly serve the purpose of increasing collaboration among member states. Industry insiders suggest that the raft of existing PESCO efforts — covering everything from battlefield communications to future naval platforms to ground vehicles — comes with a built-in potential for turf battles.
In the end, it seems a good number of PESCO projects come with a vendor team pushing a specific product under the banner or European unity. And as the dust of Euro enthusiasm settles, insiders say, vendors that weren’t part of the initial project considerations are bound to find out that defense cooperation on the continent is also about winners and losers.
Sebastian Sprenger is Europe editor for Defense News, reporting on the state of the defense market in the region, and on U.S.-Europe cooperation and multinational investments in defense and global security. He previously served as managing editor for Defense News.