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Uneasy Times In Europe As Continent Mulls Next Fighter

Posted by Douglas Barrie on

Douglas Barrie, IISS

Douglas Barrie, IISS

If the re-emergence of an assertive and occasionally belligerent Moscow was an unattractive possibility for Europeans of a cautious nature, an American president whose election campaign comments inadvertently or otherwise questioned his commitment to Article 5, the very heart of NATO, seemed unimaginable.

Today, Europe is faced with both a Russia that is a strategic rival and an American President for whom an ‘America First’ approach echoes the isolationism of the 1930s. The British vote to leave the grand endeavor of the European Union raises fundamental questions about Europe’s future. Add nationalist populism across Europe and the United States and the trans-Atlantic security environment is arguably at its lowest ebb since the early 1980s.

President Trump had the opportunity during his May visit to NATO to dispel concern amongst Alliance partners regarding Article 5, but he did not address it directly. He did finally affirm Article 5 during a press conference with Romanian President Klaus Iohannis, but to most Europeans and Canadians this was grudging acknowledgment.



Trump did use his visit to upbraid member states over the failure of many to hit the 2 percent of GDP target for defense spending. It was a missed opportunity on two counts: spending more effectively rather than merely spending more is a point that needs making. As important, but left unsaid, is the plan to spend 20 percent of defense budgets on military equipment and research and development. Too many NATO member states continue to spend too much on personnel costs.

The lack of certainty and the deteriorating defense and security environment have ramifications for Europe’s military aerospace manufacturers and the continent’s air forces. This is doubly so as governments, defense ministries and industry consider Europe’s future military aerospace requirements, including the questions of whether and how to sustain the continent’s defense industrial base.

BAE Eurofighter Typhoon

Eurofighter Typhoon

The current exemplars of European defense aerospace prowess, France’s Dassault Rafale, the four-nation (Germany, Italy, Spain and UK) Eurofighter and Sweden’s Saab Gripen are all mature programs, though all are being upgraded and redeveloped. They all continue, also, to deliver varying degrees of success in the export arena, though the final assembly lines for all three types will go cold likely by no later than the mid-2020s.

For now, Europe’s only next-generation crewed combat aircraft is the Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II. The F-35A and B variants have been ordered by Italy, while the UK has so far ordered the B-model but is increasingly expected to also procure the A-model as well.  Norway, Netherlands, Denmark, and Turkey are also European F-35 customers.

First F-35A made in Italy

First F-35A made in Italy

The F-35 program may come to be seen as a high-point of transatlantic defense aerospace co-operation, especially if Trump’s election is not merely an anti-establishment, anti-elite spasm on the part of the American electorate, and rather reflects a more long-term shift in America’s domestic and foreign policy outlook.

The shifting nature of the transatlantic compact was first voiced by German Chancellor Angela Merkel in late May: “Europeans must really take out fate into our own hands.” The German chancellor’s comments came only days after Trump had berated Alliance members over defense spending and sidestepped any reaffirmation of US commitment to Article 5.

Merkel’s apparent call for increasing self-reliance, however, might appear odd given that earlier in May the German Defense Ministry asked the US for a classified briefing on the F-35 as a potential candidate to meet its need for a successor to the Panavia Tornado ground attack aircraft. Under the banner of the Future Combat Air System (FCAS) Germany is examining how it replace the Tornado likely around 2035. A decision on how to proceed could emerge before the end of 2018. The F-35, however, is only one of a number of options – and politically and industrially the Joint Strike Fighter could be a difficult choice for Berlin to sell domestically.

Berlin is not alone in considering its future combat air requirements. France, Sweden and the UK are examining combat aircraft needs beginning toward the end of the 2030s. In mid-2016 Airbus Military showed a notional concept to meet what the German Air Force dubbed its Next Generation Weapon System. The German requirement is also known as the FCAS.

Next Generation Weapon System

Next Generation Weapon System

One, and arguably the most likely, option for Germany is to be a lead nation in a European multinational program. In early June senior Airbus officials voiced the hope that France would participate in such a project.

Paris is already involved in a next-generation air combat project. France and the UK have been working on an Unmanned Combat Air Vehicle under the aegis of the Anglo-French Defense Cooperation Treaty. The program has served to sustain key combat aircraft design and development skills in BAE Systems and Dassault, but exactly how, and perhaps even if, it proceeds in the longer term remains an open question.

The UK’s decision to leave the European Union has not made it any easier for Britain’s defense and aerospace sectors as they try to position themselves for future collaborative European programs. BAE Systems, however, is also involved in supporting the Turkish TFX fighter program, and there is the possibility of involvement in similar Japanese program.

For those old enough to remember the political and industrial maneuvering of the late 1970s and early 1980s as Europe’s leading defense aerospace nations considered a collaborative effort, perhaps only one thing is certain: assuming you know now the future political and industrial make-up of a collaborative program is simply a fool’s errand.

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