COLOGNE, Germany — The future Franco-German combat aircraft program is set to begin in earnest early next year, but a key project phase is already in full swing: the bickering.

On the surface, the two main companies involved — Dassault and Airbus — have “a clear common vision on the project,” as an Airbus spokesman put it. But there is also the politicking, the jockeying for position and the mistrust that tends to show itself when there is big money on the table.

That pertains to the second-tier suppliers, with French business weekly Challenges describing a veritable “guerre” — war — between Airbus and French electronics specialist Thales. At issue is who will lead the critical networking segment of the future weapon system, the secret sauce for turning flying pieces of bent metal into the type of lethal aerial “system of systems” that Berlin and Paris want.

Airbus Defence and Space chief Dirk Hoke, a German, claimed that role in a mid-October interview with La Tribune. And while Airbus says Dassault probably wouldn’t take issue with the arrangement, given its leadership of the actual new combat aircraft, the French company has yet to express a position on the delicate division of labor.

The Dassault press office did not respond to several requests for comment.

In many ways, the state of affairs on the Future Combat Air System, or FCAS, reflects the political features of a Franco-German friendship pushing Europe in the direction of a more unified military capability. That is, France does most of the pushing, while Germany falls back on its mechanistic reflexes in policymaking.

Airbus and Dassault Aviation have joined forces to develop and produce Europe’s Future Combat Air System. (Airbus Defence and Space)
Airbus and Dassault Aviation have joined forces to develop and produce Europe’s Future Combat Air System. (Airbus Defence and Space)

To French ears, the German attitude toward the future air weapon may seem downright stoic. That has a lot to do with a mismatch in attitude between the two countries toward military and defense writ large. France traditionally celebrates its defense companies as national champions, whereas in Germany, the arms industry is one of many economic factors, and an often pooh-poohed one at that.

“Based on the existing bilateral declarations between Germany and France, the path forward for the FCAS program is currently being harmonized in close cooperation,” a German Defence Ministry spokesman told Defense News. “This harmonization encompasses especially the coordination of the required studies in 2019 in order to start the program in a targeted and cooperative manner.”

To German ears, the French rumblings, especially in industry, seem unnecessary and premature.

“We are talking about a planning window of 2040 for fielding a follow-on aircraft to the Eurofighter and Rafale,” the spokesman added. That means, there should be plenty of time to sort out work share details.

For now, Airbus is giving the appearance that it’s watching the knife-sharpening on the industrial work share question from a distance.

“Any public discussion about detailed work share is happening way too early,” Airbus spokesman Florian Taitsch said. “Finally the industrial share-out will depend on the investments made by the participating countries. But we need to enter first into a concept study in order to understand which ingredients are required for the common system.”

Besides the industrial rumblings, high-level policy differences between Paris and Berlin are beginning to trickle down to the level of common defense programs. On the issue of exports, for example, French President Emmanuel Macron rejected a recent statement by German Chancellor Angela Merkel that arms exports should be stopped to Saudi Arabia until the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi Consulate in Turkey is fully explained.

The German news outlet Der Spiegel reported last month that disagreements over the exportability of the future FCAS weapon could represent a serious wrinkle in pushing the project forward.

So for now, the industrial “saber-rattling” continues, as one German defense official put it. The question is whether the governments will let it get to them.

As La Tribune suggested in an article about Germany’s alleged “filouteries” — skullduggery — in defense cooperation matters with France, perhaps a session of couples therapy might be in order.