Twice in two weeks French and German politicians have declared the end of a long impasse in their project to deliver one of the most complex fighter programmes in the world — a system of systems combining aircraft, drones and advanced communications.
And twice they have been put in their place by Dassault Aviation, the French aerospace and defence company that will lead the core part of the programme — the fighter jet itself.
Eric Trappier, Dassault’s chief executive, last week dismissed declarations by French president Emmanuel Macron and German chancellor Olaf Scholz that agreement had been reached on building a prototype as a “pseudo-political announcement”. A few days later the company again insisted no industrial accord had been signed after comments by the French prime minister Elisabeth Borne in Germany.
Dassault plays hard ball and always has done. Deeply integrated into both the French political and military establishments, it is supremely confident in its role as guarantor of France’s sovereignty in combat aircraft. Majority controlled by the Dassault family, the company has always displayed a certain independence from the norms of corporate diplomacy when it comes to telling politicians what it thinks. But it is a good reminder that whatever the politicians say, they will need arch rivals Dassault and Germany-based Airbus Defence and Space to play nicely if they want Europe’s biggest defence project to succeed.
The two companies have long been bitter rivals — dating back to when Airbus held a significant stake in the much smaller aerospace group as a proxy for the French government. Over the past year they have been fighting tooth and nail over how to share intellectual property on the future fighter and development of the crucial flight control system. Those battles — at times overly emotional, according to people involved in the project — have already delayed progress by a year. To be fair, the politicians were not entirely wrong. There has been some progress on two obstacles to the so-called demonstrator phase.
It seems that Dassault’s own proposed flight control system will be used for the prototype, according to several people with knowledge of discussions. And second, an apparent compromise has been secured in an entirely separate Franco-German programme to develop a future tank. Germany’s Bundestag has always insisted that the fighter and tank projects run in parallel, to ensure the country has the lead in one of the collaborations.
Now the expectation is that an industrial agreement on the so-called Phase 1B of the future fighter programme could be signed within days.
But this does not guarantee a trouble-free future for the project, where Spain is also a partner. While Dassault may have won the battle over the prototype, everything is still to play for in the next phases of the programme. For example, Airbus still expects to be involved in developing the flight control system to be used for the actual aircraft. As this critical system is unlikely to be developed completely from scratch, that will require some sharing of Dassault’s IP — which the French company remains viscerally opposed to.
Meanwhile, Germany’s Bundestag continues to insist on an equal sharing of the technological benefits of the programme. There is no evidence that either side has materially changed its position.
Politicians may have thought they could accelerate things with a public statement after a few grudging concessions. But Dassault will not be bounced into anything. Its Rafale fighter is selling like hot cakes, helped by government support. With constant upgrades it is good for a few more decades, says Trappier. The company can afford to wait things out, if need be.
At best the agreement that will be signed by Dassault and Airbus simply buys time for the two sides to carry on negotiating over the bigger spoils of the programme. The hope seems to be that once they start working together, the engineers rather than politicians or top management will develop the positive momentum needed to carry the project to fruition.
It is a big gamble. Politically, the collaboration is important — a key pillar of Europe’s ambition for greater strategic autonomy in defence. But that is not necessarily the industrial perspective. Neither Airbus Defence and Space, nor Dassault, would have chosen the other as a partner for a new fighter programme. It is difficult to see how “pseudo-political announcements” will change that.