COLOGNE, Germany – Airbus and Dassault executives hope to finalize their offer for the next phase of the Future Combat Air System by the end of the week, putting to rest a dispute over the handling of intellectual property rights that has been simmering between partner nations Germany, France and Spain.

At issue is whether countries participating in the development of mainland Europe’s futuristic weapon system are free to use the technology to make adjustments of their own later on, said German Air Force Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Ingo Gerhartz.

“It should be clear that if we’re developing a European system, there can be no black boxes,” he said at an virtual press conference organized by German aerospace industry association BDLI. The term “black box” refers to technology purchased as-is, with no means by customers to understand, replicate or modify it.

“It must be possible to hand intellectual property rights from branch of industry to another so that it’s possible for all partners to make their own developments in the future,” Gerhartz added.

The tri-national FCAS program aims to replace the German Eurofighter and French Rafale fleets by 2040. As envisioned, it will consist of a next-generation manned jet and a series of drones, dubbed remote carriers, that can be tasked to work in concert on anything from reconnaissance to strike missions.

Germany’s Airbus and France’s Dassault are the primary contractors for the program. As Europe’s most ambitious weapons project ever, it is estimated to have a price tag in the hundreds of billions of euros. Spain is meant to be a full participant, with Indra as national lead, getting access to a third of the overall work share.

Next up for the program is additional development work culminating in the presentation of a demonstrator aircraft and remote carriers by 2026 or 2027. Those could be simple, throw-away drones or more elaborate unmanned planes in the style of a “loyal wingman” to the human pilot, said Dirk Hoke, CEO of Airbus Defence and Space, at the same event.

An agreement on intellectual property usage is needed both on the government and industry level before submitting an offer for the upcoming program stage. The idea is to find a compromise by Feb. 5, have the Berlin government submit the documentation to the Bundestag, Germany’s parliament, for approval over the next few months, and get the green light to spend additional money before the summer break, Hoke said.

While Airbus is used to sharing its intellectual property rights when selling to the German government, partner nations, France and Spain handle those occasions differently. “I’m confident that we can find a common solution,” Hoke said.

Reinhard Brandl, a lawmaker of Bavaria’s Christian Social Union who sits on the Bundestag’s appropriations committee, said he shared the optimism but singled out IP rights as a continuing sticking point. “We will look at the agreement very carefully,” he said. “We don’t want to see unfavorable concessions just for the sake of an agreement.”

Brandl belongs to a faction of German lawmakers who fear that domestic companies could lose out in a cooperative program with France. That is especially the case, following that logic, because Airbus, as the German lead contractor, is partly French to begin with.

The French, meanwhile, have at times become frustrated with Germany’s piecemeal approval process for FCAS funding, a dynamic that could become even more pronounced if money gets tight as a result of the coronavirus crisis.

Thomas Jarzombek, the point person for aerospace policy at the Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy, said the program remains crucial for German industry, describing it as a recovery activity for companies post-COVID. “It’s become even more important than before,” he said.

Brandl said he still worries about spending cuts in the future, especially during development, as the defense ministry may seek opportunities for more near-term fixes to lagging readiness rates across the force. He proposed anchoring FCAS funding elsewhere in the federal government other than under the auspices of the Bundeswehr, at least until the program gets close to showing actual military utility.

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.

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