COLOGNE, Germany — Airbus executives said they see no viable “Plan B” for the embattled Future Combat Air System, as Eric Trappier, the CEO of fellow prime contractor Dassault, suggested earlier this month.
Antoine Bouvier, the head of Airbus strategy, mergers and public affairs, and Dirk Hoke, CEO of the aerospace giant’s defense division, testified before the French Senate’s foreign affairs committee on March 17 in an effort calm tensions boiling in the trinational program, known as FCAS (or SCAF in French).
Airbus and Dassault are the two main contractors for the program, with work shares to be equally divided between partner nations France, Germany and Spain. The participants had envisioned kicking off the next project stage, dubbed Phase 1B, by this summer. But new disagreements over governance procedures and the sharing of industry secrets have put the program’s future in question.
The two Airbus executives sought to pin the program’s success to the broader vision of a more independent Europe. Failure would mean the Americans can swoop in and sell their F-35 aircraft to a continent in need of its own advanced warplane industry, Bouvier argued.
“There is is no ‘Plan B,’ ” he said, referring to the suggestion that Dassault’s CEO made before the same committee a week prior.
The Dassault boss lamented that the division of labor following Spain’s inclusion would make his job as the main risk taker on the program’s central element, the Next-Generation Fighter, near impossible. In addition, Airbus was on track to become too dominant a player, given that the company also has roots in Spain and Germany, he argued.
Bouvier sought to dispel the idea of Dassault getting outplayed, noting that Airbus teaming arrangements include other French industry heavyweights such as Thales and MBDA. Airbus is firmly entrenched in the business of French defense, he said, suggesting the company should not be viewed as leaning too German when it comes to FCAS.
The bias on both sides goes something like this, according to Bouvier: Some Germans think the French want to build a French airplane with German money, while some French think the Germans want to steal trade secrets and build a weapon of their own.
The “invective and polemic” surrounding the program — French business newspaper La Tribune had recently trashed Germany’s FCAS motives in a series of articles — was beginning to “pollute” the debate, Bouvier warned.
Speaking in French during the in-person committee meeting in Paris, Hoke said Airbus made a new offer for Dassault to retain four of six strategic work packages. In addition, negotiations were ongoing about contract language for Phase 1B to preserve companies‘ unique know-how in critical domains.
“That is easier said than done,” Hoke said.
A speedily inked deal is critical so Germany’s parliament has time to study and approve it before the summer recess in late June, Hoke said. Timing and the political context in Germany is the reason why Airbus has largely kept quiet about the FCAS kerfuffle, he added, as there is no telling how the issue would fare if dragged into Germany’s election season.
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.