Are European defense programs in the right technological tempo?

While the 3 major world military powers, the United States, China and Russia, seem to have entered a new technological arms race, European industries remain engaged in programs which timetable seems out of step with the technological tempo given by these superpowers. However, if counter-programming can be an effective tool for conquering the market, it can also prove to have very damaging consequences in certain circumstances, for the very sustainability of the European defense industry. So how can we analyze the European strategy, its origins and its foreseeable effects in the medium and long term?

European programs against the times

Since the mid-2010s, it appears that the 3 great military powers, American, Chinese and Russian, have relaunched a race in defense technology. It is characterized by the proliferation of contracts to modernize their forces with more modern equipments and often a doctrinal break with those in service, as well as by significant breakthroughs in entirely new technological fields, likely to profoundly change military action . At the same time, Europeans, if they have shown a revival of initiative for a few years, remain mainly attached to more conventional programs, and envisage technological breakthrough only in a much more distant calendar than reference nations.

In 2030, the Russian air forces will align more than a hundred Su-57s and as many Okhotnik combat drones, none of these materials having an equivalent in European industry

It is China, and especially Russia, which launched the current technological race. On the Russian side, it is characterized by programs such as the Su-57 Felon, the T-14 Armata battle tank , or the anti-aircraft system S-500 . On the other hand, the country has developed a series of disruptive technologies giving it a remarkable technological advantage over NATO, particularly in the field of hypersonic weapons , with the Kh47M Kinzhal airborne ballistic missile, the 3M22 Tzirkon anti-ship missile, and the Avangard atmospheric glider. In addition, there are modernization programs for the equipment currently in service, such as the T72B3M or T90M tanks, the Su34 and Su35 aircrafts, the Anteï and Improved Kilo submarines. The objective of all of these programs is to give Russia, by 2030, an indisputable technological and digital military advantage over the European component of NATO forces.

The United States has taken stock of the upheavals underway, and launched, since 2015, a series of programs aimed at neutralizing as soon as possible this technological breakthrough at the benefit of its potential adversaries. The US Army has launched the super program BIG-6 , aimed at reproducing the successes of the BIG-5 program of the 70s which saw the appearance of the Bradley infantry fighting vehicle, the missile helicopter UH-60 Black Hawk or even the Patriot missile, and which gave it the technological advance on the battlefield for over 30 years. The US Air Force is engaged in a deep evolution of its fleet, with the F35A program for its fighter fleet, the KC46 for its tanker fleet, and the B21 for its fleet of strategic bombers . As for the US Air Force, the objective is to reach an operational level for 2030, so as to be able to meet the challenge posed by Russia and especially China. Handicapped by the consequences of several badly designed and greedy programs, like the Zumwalt destroyers or the LCS corvettes, the US Navy appears to be in retreat today, especially since it cannot resolve the squaring of the circle as represents his planning. But it has made significant progress in terms of autonomous vessels, whether surface or submarine, to the point of representing from now on for many a preferred solution to respond to the strengthening of the Chinese navy, and its naval technological capacities. .

In 2030, the US Army will have new generation helicopters from the FLRAA and FARA programs, like here the Raider-X of Sikorsky, finalist of the FARA competition

Europe, for its part, simply has no ongoing technological disruption program with an operational deadline prior to 2035, see 2040. The programnew generation SCAF fighter Franco-German will not enter service before 2040, and the MGCS new generation tank program targets 2035 as the date of entry into service. Regarding the helicopter programs, they all remain disconcertingly classic in the face of FARA or FLRAA Americans programs. There is currently no advanced program in place for hypersonic weapons, or systems capable of countering these weapons. In fact, until 2035, in the best of cases, the European armies and industries will align fighter planes of the Rafale or Typhoon generation, combat tanks of the Leopard 2 or Leclerc generation, helicopters of the generation of the Tiger or the NH90. It will probably have no equipment such as an electric cannon or hypersonic missile, nor will any other technology identified as potentially having the potential to disrupt the battlefield of 2030 ...

The reasons for this European dropout

Obviously, this temporal and technological dropout is not the consequence of a single factor. It actually results from several decisions and assessments of situations over the past 30 years. First of all, it is the doctrine of "Benefits of Peace" which is to be questioned. After the collapse of the Soviet bloc, European leaders undertook a rapid reduction in the military means at their disposal, owing to the disappearance of the adversary who had justified defense spending for more than 50 years. The objective was obviously to decrease the budgets of the armies, or at least not to increase them any more, which was perfectly applied by the European chancelleries for more than 25 years. The limited means then available to the armies did not allow equipment to be renewed in time, nor to correct their obsolescence. In fact, since 2015 and the end of this somewhat idealized doctrine, the European armies have concentrated their resources not to prepare for 2030, but to catch up to 2010.

The Leopard 2 will remain the only European heavy tank until 2035, the chains of the French Leclercs and British Challenger II having been dismantled more than 20 years ago.

The second aggravating factor which generated the current situation is the nature of the conflicts in which the European armies participated between 1995 and 2015. With the notable exception of the NATO intervention in Kosovo, all these conflicts, whether of the intervention in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Mali, Ivory Coast and the Central African Republic, were asymmetrical in nature, with a guerrilla-type adversary, not an adversary employing heavy weapons and advanced technologies. The armies have adapted to this mission, with lighter, very mobile materials capable of resisting Improvised Explosive Devices. In fact, the replacement of systems adapted to high intensity combat, as in the case of a conflict between Russia and NATO or China and the United States, was postponed in favor of more specialized needs, all the more that, at the same time, the means available were limited.

While Europe applied the benefits of Peace, China developed its military industry, with the support of Europeans, like here this Z-9 derived from the Panther of Airbus Helicopters

Finally, in addition to the slowdown in the European technological tempo and the reduction in resources and ambitions of Europeans, demand for exports has also contracted for almost two decades, even if, on occasion, Chinese acquisitions allowed to partially compensate for this weak activity. Defense industries then evolved to adapt to this much more tenuous world market, which moreover was with the appearance of new players, concomitant with the decrease in national orders. They are found today in a reduced format no longer allowing to carry out work and developments outside of a prior order. At the same time, they have lost a large part of the interest that they aroused politically apart from their lesser role in terms of technological management at national level. In other words, from proactive, the European defense industries have now become reactive, while at the same time, the Russian and Chinese industries have followed the opposite trajectory.

A threat to the sustainability of the European defense industry

The consequences of all of these factors now threaten not only the performance but the very existence of the European defense industry in the medium and long term. Indeed, and as we touched on previously, it finds itself in a technological tempo different from that of the 3 great military powers, which nevertheless defines the reality of the world armaments market, as well as that of the battlefield. Admittedly, they continue today to produce and sell high-performance equipment, but beyond the technologies which make the current standard of defense, they are very likely not to be able to align themselves in time concerning the next generation of military materials.

The British Tempest program, like the Franco-German SCAF, provides for the entry into service of the first aircraft beyond 2035, provided that no difficulty hinders developments.

Thus, until 2035, France and Germany will be able to offer on the market of combat aircraft only the Rafale and the Typhoon, in their respective evolutions. The two aircraft will be confronted not only with the F35, but also with the Russian Su-57 and Chinese aircrafts which are positioned on the market, one with a more advanced technological offer, especially accompanied by the S70 Okhotnik , the other with an attractive tariff offer, and the Chinese commercial and political power which will then have nothing to envy to that of the United States. In other words, the chances of a European aircraft winning an export competition between 2025 and 2040, until the entry into service of SCAF, are very low. Meanwhile, the American, Russian and Chinese planes will have phagocyte the market, by blocking as much as possible the market for the European planes, so that except for the replacement of the Typhoon and the Rafales, the addressable market will be extremely limited. The same applies to the MGCS, which will to face the Russian Armata which will probably have already proven themselves, the Chinese VT4s and potentially their successors, as well as the replacement for the Abrams and the Bradley.

In 2030, the Russian forces will, in all probability, have a thousand T14 Armata heavy tanks, supported by some 2500 modernized versions of the T72, T80 and T90.

Besides the addressable market, Europeans will not be able to rely on the experience accumulated by its competitors, both from an industrial and military point of view, due to the existence of these offbeat programs. Thus, the United States, Russia and China are already accumulating experience related to the use of combat aircrafts or stealth drones, hypersonic missiles, directed energy weapon systems or new generation armored vehicles. This experience will be lacking for Europeans when it comes to promoting or developing their own weapon systems, so that the accumulated delay will persist over time.

How to remedy this situation

The trivial question that arises today is whether it is possible to remedy this deadly situation for the European Defense industry. This solution exists, and it imposes itself as soon as we analyze the present and future needs while keeping in mind the constraints of the calendar imposed by other nations. On the one hand, the European armies and the industrialists cannot do without the modernization in progress, as much to remedy the immediate failures as to acquire the skills which result from it. On the other hand, industries must stick to the global technological tempo and therefore be able to put into service, by 2030, the equipment of new technologies imposed by the United States, Russia or China. It is clear that the time between these two stages is not sufficient to justify replacing the equipments.

France has not been able to capitalize on the Neuron demonstrator program to acquire, before the others, a stealth combat drone, and position itself on this very promising market.

To solve this potentially insoluble equation, it suffices to give up a paradigm presented as irremovable for thirty years, that of standardization and large series, to replace it with an industrial paradigm based on smaller, specialized series, associated with technological tiling ensuring performance progress in time. To achieve this, it would also be necessary to return to a logic of recurrent demonstrator programs, ensuring the development of technological bricks which would then be integrated into the armament programs themselves, without linking them to technological development, and therefore without suffering the consequences in terms of additional costs or delays in the event of deadlock or difficulties.

Naturally, this approach would require additional resources, and in particular an increase in development and equipment credits for European armies. But like we have approached it on numerous occasions , these budgetary means would quickly generate fiscal and social returns such that they would compensate for the additional costs. In addition, the European defense industry would regain its position as a technological leader in the world, along with the 3 major military powers, and the simultaneous increase in supply in terms of product range and technological relevance would mechanically increase the industry's export performance. From the military point of view, the European armies would have means allowing, even from the point of view of conventional armaments and without the assistance of the United States, deterrence of any opponent from any military adventurism on the continent, or in the European zone of influence. Finally, European industry would benefit from the driving role in technological development played by the defense industry, as was the case in the 60s, 70s and 80s, which helped to shape the current European industrial landscape.


The current trajectory of the European defense industry is worrying to say the least, and would require a deep reflection if the authorities of each country actually wish to preserve this industry and the resulting strategic autonomy. In 2015, the president of GIFAS, the Grouping of French Industries of Aeronautics and Space, Eric Trappier, also CEO of Dassault Aviation, had called on the authorities of the country to demand a global investment program in defense of € 25 billion, compared to € 10 billion today, and switching to a technological dynamic based on the design of demonstrators and the production of small series.

Without changing paradigms, the European defense industry risks facing difficulties that could threaten its own sustainability in the next two decades.

Unfortunately, once the SCAF program has been validated, securing part of the French aeronautical defense industry for the next 30 years, this desire has simply disappeared, even if the SCAF program goes against even the stated paradigms so. Unfortunately, this industrial bet is a risky bet, both for the European defense industry and for the European armies, for the reasons that we have just detailed. While Europe is facing the consequences of the Covid epidemic19, consequences which will affect both the industrial fabric and the budgetary capacities of the states, it will be crucial to take an objective and detailed look at the risks weighing on European Defense and its industry, and how to fix it.

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