June 15, 2017

Europe: Desperately Seeking Combat Aircraft



As European countries more closely align their defense and security policy, Airbus’s military arm hopes to develop an integrated weapons system that will combine drones, combat aircraft, satellites and commando and surveillance aircraft.


Both the Eurofighter and the Tornado, two European-made fighter jets, are aging models that will soon require replacement.

The two models are to be replaced by the Future Combat Air System, or FCAS.

European countries are reluctant to buy weapons systems from US companies, fearing this gives the United States too much control over European decision-making.

JUNE 12, 2017 AT 3:08 PM CEST

The Eurofighter Typhoon is about to be swept away as Airbus pushes for Europe to adopt new military aircraft. Source: dpa

Source: dpa

The head of Airbus Military said that his company is making preparations for a European combat aircraft of the future, but can only take things so far if governments don’t put in orders.

“We are working on various building blocks in Germany and Spain. Part of our funding comes from governments, and we are hoping for more,” Fernando Alonso said from Airbus headquarters in Toulouse.

Mr. Alonso said that Europe needs to move forward on a coordinated system that integrates drones, combat aircraft and satellites, as well as commando and surveillance aircraft. In Brussels, foreign and defense ministers are working to bring together defense and security policies. The number of weapons systems is expected to decline for efficiency reasons as a result. “We hope that France will also participate because we have to be on the same page in Europe. There is no longer room for two or three different systems,” Mr. Alonso said. “The time is ripe for making and implementing a decision in Europe.”

But for coordinated policies to work there are a number of countries that need to urgently update their air forces with new, more modern aircraft, including Germany and Spain.

The time is ripe for making and implementing a decision in Europe.

Fernando Alonso 
Boss at Airbus Military

What Mr. Alonso is urging fits with the “Military Aviation Strategy” that German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen presented at the start of 2016. Airbus Military, the French plane maker’s military division, says that the next generation of airborne weapsons system will be a composite system. The “Future Combat Air System” (FCAS) Mr. Alonso and his team are currently pushing will replace the aging Eurofighter and the Tornado in Germany. But developing the FCAS will be expensive, which is why Airbus Military is looking to sign on as many EU countries as possible.

In Germany, the Tornado is the aircraft of choice, followed closely behind by the Eurofighter. But the Tornado is fast going out of date and retrofitting will only make the planes usable for a few years, according to government statements. One possibility Berlin is considering is to purchase American-made F35s, an existing aircraft that could be quickly procured. However doing so would require seeking permission from the US for every deployment. Airbus officials say this would result in Europe losing “both its competence and its sovereignty.”

This portrayal may be an exaggeration made by a business looking to cut its own deals, but the fear is a real one shared by defense policymakers in Germany’s governing coalition made of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s center-right Christian Democrats and the center-left Social Democrats. Europeans already feel resentful of America’s extensive control rights for the use of American-made drones in Mali. Donald Trump’s ascent into the White House has only exasperated tensions. His ongoing beef with NATO commitments and European defense expenditures, as well as his general unpredictability, are all the more reason for Europe to cooperate more closely in security policy. The purchase of US combat aircraft would be considered an inappropriate gift to Washington.

Then there is the question of technical competence. Airbus Military is developing drone sensors and builds tankers and the A400M military transporter, but combat aircraft is its specialty. France still has the necessary competence to participate in FCAS, but the Germans only have some in the form of the Airbus-made Eurofighter. But the Eurofighter will soon be obsolete as Airbus makes plans to move on from the jet.

Germany also has a special problem. The country is not a nuclear power, but the US stores atomic bombs here. Under the agreement, the German air force must have carrier aircraft for those bombs. As the US Air Force modernizes its nuclear warheads, Germany’s Tornadoes are inching closer to the end of its serviceable life. A solution needs to be found.

For financial and political reasons, legislators in Berlin eyeing reelection on September 24 are staying mum on the issue. There are fundamental strategic questions, such as how reliable the American nuclear umbrella remains. These topics are highly unpopular in Germany’s pacifist populace, and so politicians are hoping the issue doesn’t force its way into the election campaign. The Defense Ministry said that there are no pending decisions on the part of Germany. “We are in the stage of comprehensive market research,” a ministry spokesman said on request. “A decision is not expected until next year.”

The market research also covers existing aircraft systems – for example, when and how many American F35s could be delivered. “We are asking all those that could possibly be considered,” the spokesman said. There are also talks with European manufacturers about new system solutions, such as a French-German-Spanish project to replace the Tornado and Eurofighter in the long term. According to the defense ministry spokesman, it is also important to discover which aircraft could be delivered, in which quantities and at what prices.

Airbus is now touting an intermediate solution: The Eurofighter could be sufficiently upgraded to carry nuclear bombs and replace the Tornado for a few years. Without commenting directly on German interests, Mr. Alonso said that the Eurofighter could be sufficiently modernized to “extend its service life beyond 2030, probably until 2040.”

However, the relationship between Airbus Military and several European countries is tense, because of the delays in delivery and the limited use of the A400M transporter. Several countries, including Germany, are even demanding financial penalties, which are currently the subject of talks. Mr. Alonso did not want to comment the details, but said he hopes for an amicable solution by the end of the year.


Thomas Hanke is Handelsblatt’s correspondent in Paris. Donata Riedel covers economic policy for Handelsblatt. To contact the authors: hanke@handelsblatt.comriedel@handelsblatt.com.

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