STUTTGART, Germany — France is forging ahead to study options for a future maritime patrol aircraft platform, while presumably still partnering with neighbor Germany on a joint program with the same goal announced nearly six years ago.
The French military procurement agency Direction Générale de l’Armement (DGA) announced Jan. 12 that it awarded two contracts for industry heavies Airbus Defence & Space and Dassault Aviation to examine potential replacements for its current maritime patrol aircraft (MPA) fleet.
The 18-month studies, awarded in late December and each worth €10.9 million (U.S. $11.80 million), will focus on the suitability of Airbus’ A320neo and Dassault’s Falcon 10X platforms to replace France’s decades-old Atlantique ATL2 MPAs. The DGA hopes to launch a procurement program by 2026 and field a future maritime patrol aircraft – or “Patmar” as the agency calls it, for the French “système de patrouille maritime du futur” – by the 2030s.
The announcement places yet another question mark over the status of the Maritime Airborne Warfare System (MAWS) effort, launched by France and Germany in 2017 with the goal of developing a European-designed manned aircraft for maritime patrol missions, to fly by 2035.
While MAWS was launched to find a replacement for Paris’ ATL2 aircraft and Berlin’s P-3C Orion platforms, the German Navy’s 2019 decision to retire its P-3C fleet early threw a wrench in the program’s ambitions. The subsequent 2021 decision to acquire a handful of Boeing-built P-8A Poseidon aircraft from the U.S. Navy as a presumed interim solution became, reportedly, strike two.
Both nations’ ministries of defense asserted the MAWS program was ongoing when approached by Defense News, but the way forward continues to be murky.
The DGA’s contract announcement does not mark the end of MAWS cooperation, and in fact, the parameters of the studies remain “consistent” with the basis of MAWS that was agreed to by both nations in 2017, the French Ministry of Defense said in a Jan. 18 email.
However, Berlin’s 2021 decision to procure new P-8A Poseidon aircraft from the United States will lead to some program elements being redefined, the ministry noted. The five aircraft on order, and the assumption of additional aircraft to be procured this year, present a “desynchronization of French and German needs.”
A spokesperson for the German Ministry of Defense said in a Jan. 18 email that the nation is “sticking with MAWS,” and is in a “cooperative exchange” with France about how to best proceed.
“It is important to us that the program is designed on an equal footing with the [French] program partner,” the spokesperson added, noting that the current geopolitical developments in Europe have demonstrated the “necessity” of the joint MAWS effort. The protection of undersea cables and resources has become an area of intense focus for France and other European allies, and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has placed a renewed emphasis on anti-submarine surveillance.
Meanwhile, Germany is slated to receive its first P-8 in 2024, a Boeing spokesperson told Defense News. All five aircraft currently on order should be delivered by the first quarter of 2025, they added.
While reports last year hinted that Berlin may procure additional P-8s, Boeing has not yet received an official request for more planes, the spokesperson noted. The company is currently not involved in any discussions around MAWS, they added.
Boeing referred to the German Ministry of Defense for comments about potential additional contractors to provide capability packages for the P-8, but noted that the company is working with German suppliers Lufthansa Technik and ESG Elektroniksystem- und Logistik-GmbH for local P-8 support, maintenance, and operational repairs once the aircraft are delivered to Germany.
While the studies with Airbus and Dassault move forward, 18 of France’s 22 current ATL2 aircraft are being upgraded to a Standard 6 configuration that will be completed in 2025, and keep them flying through 2032, per the defense ministry. New capabilities on the aircraft will include the Thales Searchmaster surveillance radar, and seek to restore the aircraft’s performance, particularly in the undersea warfare domain.
Officials in Berlin have continued to assert that the P-8 procurement effort is only an interim solution in anticipation of MAWS, but with the Patmar study contract announcement, France is signaling “an intent to strike out on its own,” said Dan Darling, a senior analyst with the U.S.-based Forecast International.
“If Germany or another European partner should follow its lead and join in a pooled procurement down the line, so much the better from Paris’ perspective,” Darling wrote in a Jan. 13 post for Forecast International. “In the meantime, however, its MPA replacement effort is not standing still.”
Sebastian Sprenger in Washington contributed to this report.
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.