This year will show how much the commitments of European governments to a stronger and more autonomous defense capability are worth. The expected discussions on budgets in connection with the heavily burdening COVID-19 pandemic will also test the assertiveness of those who play a role in defense policy.
The year 2021 is one of decisive course-setting for the most important future programs of military aviation.
We expect Germany, France, Italy and Spain to sign the contract for the European drone in the first half of the year. By creating a European alternative, and even founding a new generation of drones, these four nations are establishing a first, stable cornerstone for the Future Combat Air System.
In FCAS, however, not only the medium-altitude, long-endurance segment will play a role, but also several variants of remote carriers, whose technology we intend to test in live demonstrations this year.
For this, as well as the other four pillars of the FCAS project, a commissioning of the demonstrator phase 1B by the middle of the year is of utmost importance. FCAS is the most ambitious European defense project in history, and we are all proud to be part of it. But FCAS also has a very ambitious timetable that must be met. If we want to achieve it by 2040, this requires disciplined work from European industry and a realistic assessment of everyone’s capabilities. At the same time, political leaders should push the project forward in a pragmatic way. Pragmatism also includes the acceptance of different speeds in joint armament projects.
Furthermore, it will be important to open up the concept of defense widely. In a project dedicated to the middle of the century, it must not happen that we leave out the elements of space, networking, data processing and cybersecurity. As comprehensive and multidimensional as the threats are, so must be the options for our countermeasures.
This year will also see a winner in two large European fighter aircraft tenders, namely Switzerland and Finland. It will reveal if the time has come for nations to choose industrial and political partnerships within their close neighborhood, or if they still strive for partnerships elsewhere like they did 30 years ago. The Eurofighter jet is the truly European solution and would fit perfectly into both air forces. In particular, its long-term evolution will make it the aircraft of choice for air defense beyond 2060, and also a fully integrated part of FCAS.
Another important decision will be made on how Germany and France want to proceed with the future maritime airborne warfare system. The MAWS program, initiated in 2018 by the two ministries of defense, is an important international cooperative project that will add new capabilities and preserve existing ones for Europe’s mission readiness.
The past year has shown how important defense assets can also be in disaster relief. Countless times, A400M and A330 Multi Role Tanker Transport aircraft have transported relief supplies and intensive care patients, helping to alleviate distress where it was worst. This has ensured a strong acceptance of our armed forces — perhaps also among sections of the population who otherwise do not want to see the need for such institutions. At the same time, it has also become clear that securing one’s own airspace or that of an ally does not simply stop because of a pandemic.
It will also be interesting to see how the relationship between the U.S. and European states will evolve. In my view, a genuine partnership must develop again. Europe’s sovereign ability to provide for its own security in the long term can and must be in the interest of all parties involved. This also presupposes that the need to maintain Europe’s own technological competence is promoted accordingly within Europe, even if procurement from outside Europe may seem easier at first. In the long run, an investment in one’s own sovereignty, and thus also in one’s own technological capabilities, will always pay off.
Last year taught us all what matters in the end. This year is when we’ll draw the right conclusions.
Dirk Hoke is the CEO of Airbus Defence and Space.