STUTTGART, Germany – One of Europe’s key weapon developments has stalled as the prime contractors have failed to reach agreement on the path forward, a top industry official said Friday.
The trinational Future Combat Air System (FCAS) program — intended to provide a swath of new military capabilities to France, Germany, and Spain by 2040 – has yet to enter its research-and-development phase, and risks falling behind schedule if the industry partners cannot compromise on key workshare allowances.
Two of the three prime contractors, Airbus and Dassault, haven’t reached a deal to launch the R&D-related Phase 1B that would lead to a prototype fighter jet by 2027, said Dassault CEO Eric Trappier in a Friday earnings meeting.
“We have done everything possible to sign with Airbus, and I’m waiting for Airbus’ signature,” he said. “The problem is on the other side of the Rhine.”
The Phase 1B contract has been prepared by the French military procurement agency Direction générale de l’armement (DGA), “and we are waiting for Airbus to sign… which is not the case right now,” Trappier said. Dassault is leading France’s industry participation in the FCAS program, while Airbus represents Germany and Indra represents Spain. Indra, who leads Spain’s industry participation in the FCAS program, declined to comment on Friday.
The negotiations, which have dragged on for months now, risk bringing the program to a complete standstill. “There is a moment where we say ‘yes,’ or we say ‘no,’” Trappier continued. “In my opinion, this has gone on a bit too long.”
Per Trappier, the dispute rests on Dassault’s role as the lead for the Next-Generation Fighter element. The program is separated into seven technology “pillars,” each of which is led by a specific company, with subcontractors contributing as well. Dassault is responsible for the new fighter jet, while Airbus leads the “loyal wingman” remote-carrier drone design, along with new cloud capabilities and stealth technologies. Indra leads the sensor systems pillar, while Safran is building a new jet engine for the fighter.
“Dassault should be the leader and the main contractor” for the fighter jet, Trappier said. “Additional requests were introduced to support this program; I said that there was a red line not to be crossed.”
According to Airbus, the kerfuffle boils down to fairness.
“We have managed months ago to find fair and balanced agreements on all 6 other pillars, where even under a defined leadership the competence and capacities of each partner are respected and can participate in an equitable manner,” a spokesman told Defense News. “Airbus has made several proposals to converge also on the Next Generation Fighter (NGF) and we are supporting any solution which will respect both the skills of each partner and the lead role of Dassault Aviation, leading to a fair agreement. We are confident that a resolution can be achieved if the rules of the cooperation agreed by the nations are respected in the NGF, as it is the case on other pillars.”
The program’s stakeholders have long awaited this industry contract. The German, French, and Spanish defense ministers reached their own trinational agreement last summer, which formalized the nations’ funding commitments through Phase 1B and 2, culminating in an initial prototype by 2027. In an Aug. 31 tweet lauding the deal, the German Defense Ministry pointedly said: “Now it’s industry’s turn – come to an agreement.”
The ongoing delay risks pushing back the delivery schedule for the new fighter jet. Meanwhile, Dassault engineers who were due to work on the demonstrator phase have been redeployed elsewhere in the company, Trappier said. They will return to the FCAS program if and when the contract is signed.
“I know they are eager to design an NGF demonstrator,” he said.
The trinational program isn’t the only source of tension between France and Germany at the moment. Reports have emerged that Berlin is once again considering buying U.S.-made F-35 Joint Strike Fighters as it phases out its aging Tornado fleet, and new Chancellor Olaf Scholz recently announced plans for Germany to invest 100 billion euro (U.S. $110 billion) into its defense.
Trappier, who is also the current president of the French Aerospace Industries Association (GIFAS), said Friday that he is “convinced” Germany will choose the F-35, as it had previously desired. He claimed the Germans are being pressured by the U.S. to use F-35s for their nuclear mission, even as Berlin pays lip service to the need to “Buy European.”
“We will see with our number-one partner, which is Germany, whether the first decision they make [after investing 100 billion euros] is to sign the FCAS contract, or to buy the F-35,” he said.
Vivienne Machi is a reporter based in Stuttgart, Germany, contributing to Defense News' European coverage. She previously reported for National Defense Magazine, Defense Daily, Via Satellite, Foreign Policy and the Dayton Daily News. She was named the Defence Media Awards' best young defense journalist in 2020.