Could the dreamed-up European fighter jet be realized after all?

Driven by Vladimir Putin, a European alternative to the American F-35 may well get off the ground after all. The governments in Berlin and Paris said last week that an agreement had finally been reached on the next phase of the European fighter jet that Germany and France are developing with Spain. This week, however, the CEO of the participating French aircraft manufacturer Dassault said that it was a “political pseudo-announcement”, that the deal was not yet finalized. Among other things, there is disagreement about the division of labor and the requirements for the device.

All eyes are therefore on French Prime Minister Élisabeth Borne, visiting Berlin on Friday, and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz. If they sign an agreement, the construction of a demonstration model can start five years after the announcement. The fighter jet would be for sale from 2040. But maybe it won’t be until 2050, Dassault boss Eric Trappier already warned.

The largest and most prestigious European defense project, worth 100 billion euros, shows how difficult European defense cooperation has been going so far. But the possible restart also shows the new sense of urgency. Shortly after the Russian attack on Ukraine in February, the leaders of the EU member states agreed in the French Versailles to ‘strengthen Europe’s defense capabilities’, including through higher spending and more cooperation.

The higher expenditure is all right, the European Commission concluded last week on the basis of the annual overview of the European Defense Agency. Total expenditure rose from less than EUR 170 billion in 2014 to EUR 214 billion last year, and will continue to rise sharply to more than EUR 280 billion in 2025. Excellent, the Commission thinks – with the caveat that expenditure after the financial crisis in 2008 is such that the damage to the military reserves will not be repaired until next year.

This is also due to the war in Ukraine. In the past nine months, the EU countries together have supplied some 8 billion euros worth of equipment to the Ukrainian army. Those weapons largely came from its own reserves – which were not yet full. Of course no one wants to say out loud what the exact state of European stocks is nine months later, but it certainly won’t last. Germany, if attacked, has ammunition for one or two days. But for this, EU member states are now generously pulling out their wallets.

Also read this profile of the German arms manufacturer Rheinmetall: Will the maligned German ammunition maker become a showpiece?

Empty shelves

The European Commission is much less enthusiastic about the cooperation. She is particularly concerned about the lack of coordination between Member States in the procurement of defense equipment. That’s how they drive up the price. In addition, one can run on certain weaponry, resulting in empty shelves, with the most vulnerable Member States likely to miss out.

The Commission believes that Member States take insufficient account of the European defense strategy in the longer term. Without coordination, there is a high risk of duplication on the one hand and gaps in the total European arsenal on the other.

EU countries also invest insufficiently in the development of European defense projects, according to the Commission. Member States are only prepared to invest in national industry, otherwise they prefer to buy from non-European suppliers, mainly in the United States, if they can deliver faster or cheaper than European suppliers.

European countries need to cooperate more, but faster is the most important thing

This was illustrated by Dutch Defense Minister Kajsa Ollongren (D66) last week in Brussels. She said she has no objection to buying in the US. European countries should purchase more together, Ollongren acknowledged, but “faster is the most important thing”. The Commission thinks otherwise. She warns that the development of the European defense industry is necessary for a certain military autonomy.

There is already a European Defense Fund for this purpose, which spends more than one billion annually on defense projects with at least three participating EU member states. Inspired by the joint procurement of corona vaccines, the Commission has also set up an agency with 500 million in cash to coordinate joint procurement by at least three Member States. EU foreign commissioner Josep Borrell recently asked European defense ministers to almost double the share of collective spending from barely 18 percent this year to 35 percent in 2030.

‘A trial balloon’

But it is not that easy, think representatives of the European arms industry, who gathered in Rotterdam last week for a trade fair. He welcomes more cooperation, says Paul Glaser, financial director of the German boat builder Thyssenkrupp. “Countries must coordinate who specializes in what. And equalize their demands.”

But Glaser still sees insufficient political will. “European countries do not yet understand that we are moving towards a war industry. Much more and faster must be produced. We cannot do that if all armies use different standards.” Like other sectors, the defense industry is struggling with personnel shortages, faltering supply lines and high energy prices.

An employee of another major German player in the defense industry, who wishes to remain anonymous, does not believe that EU member states will work together better. He does not know whether Borrell’s call is “a utopia” or “a trial balloon”, but he can sense emotion in any case: “Europe is in a panic”.

Without pausing for breath, he could enumerate the problems of joint procurement: different regulations, different timing of budgets, different standards, different national interests. Apart from the administration, and competition law. Moreover, countries attach great importance to sovereignty and do not want to dispose of army units.

Every country wants to do everything, agrees Gerlof de Wilde, who worked for the European Defense Agency for years and now works for the European Commission. “The problem is: there is not one European army, not one central customer.” 44 different types of helicopters are now flying in the EU and 12 models of tanks are on the road.

But De Wilde is not as gloomy as the previous speaker. “It takes time, but it’s going in the right direction with small steps.” He calls the nine A330 refueling aircraft, with which six European countries cooperate, a good example, as does the intensive cooperation between the Dutch and Belgian navies.

Also read this interview: ‘I have experienced many Franco-German peaks and valleys. But what’s happening now affects everything’

As said, things are less smooth between Germany and France. Of the five programs that the countries launched together in 2017, after the necessary delay, only the development of a European drone has now progressed. Apart from the fighter plane, other headaches are the development of a European battle tank, maritime patrol aircraft and a European attack helicopter. There are also skewed eyes about a European missile shield that Germany wants to set up without France with equipment from the US.

Roughly summarized, it always comes down to the fact that France advocates European autonomy (preferably under French leadership) and Germany likes to continue to lean on the US. Because of transatlantic relations – purchasing is also geopolitical – and because of the price. What is already on the shelf is cheaper than what has to be developed new. That is why Germany also recently succumbed to 35 American F-35s. It could not wait for the European successor, the German statement read. A wrong signal, it sounded seething in French.

This week, German and French government officials traveled back and forth to iron out some of the wrinkles. And that’s a good thing, says De Wilde of the Commission: ‘France and Germany must first come to an agreement. Only then can there be cooperation in Europe.”

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