After his German counterpart Lt General Ingo Gerhartz, it is the turn of General Luca Goretti, the Chief of Staff of the Italian Air Force, to declare that, according to him, the European programs of 6th generation combat aircraft SCAF (for Air Combat System of the Future ) which brings together Germany, Spain and France, and FCAS (for Futur Combat Air System, the same acronym) which brings together Great Britain, Italy and Sweden, will be called to merge in the more or less near future. According to the Italian general officer, given the industrial and budgetary issues, and the proximity of programs, industrial players and countries, their merger is not only desirable, but it would also be the guarantor to carry out this European ambition, and to consider that Italy, which simultaneously has a foothold in the EU, in NATO and in the Tempest program, could serve as a bridge precisely to bring these ambitions closer together.
For now, the two programs are still in the initial design phase. However, this did not prevent significant tensions from appearing, particularly within the SCAF program, with German and Spanish requirements difficult to reconcile with French ambitions, leading to more than heated debates in early 2021 with the fear of seeing the program abandoned, or greatly slowed down as is the case with the other emblematic program of Franco-German cooperation, the MGCS program which should make it possible to replace the Leclerc and Leopard 2 tanks of the two armies. Ultimately, a hard-fought negotiated deal was reached in late spring, in time for the Bundestag to authorize funding for the prototype design phases, not without some defiant positions on the part of German parliamentarians. However, it is clear that the two programs do indeed follow a similar timetable and technological and operational ambitions, making it possible to envisage a merger or even a merger. But what would be, in such a hypothesis, the consequences for the developments themselves, on the required operational capacities, and on the defense industries in France?
In an ideal world ...
In the mid-80s, when the Cold War was at its height following the end of the Euromissile crisis, three new generation fighter aircraft programs emerged almost simultaneously on the old continent: the Swedish JAS 39 Gripen, a single-engine fighter wanting to be the designated successor of the F-16 and the Mirage 2000, the Eurofighter Typhoon, successor to the Panavia Tornado, which brought together the same German, Italian and British nations, and which would later be joined by Spain, and the French Rafale, whose development was started when Paris decided to withdraw from the European program. The fact is, and this was widely demonstrated by several studies, these 3 programs have led the Europeans to develop very numerous technological duplicates, and even, in the case of the Typhoon and the Rafale, to some form of duplicate capability in several areas. This observation did not prevent, 30 years later, Europeans from following the same approach, with the simultaneous launch of the SCAF and FCAS programs a few months apart, with very similar operational and technological ambitions.
In an ideal world, therefore, it would be perfectly logical to merge these 2 programs, especially as their respective ambitions will require colossal investments on the part of European countries. In addition, the European defense aeronautical industrial environment has undergone profound changes in recent years, with the emergence of groups with an enlarged European dimension, such as Airbus Defense and Space, MBDA, Thales or Leonardo, some of them having to do so. title one foot in each of the programs. And while all European armies are forced to perform acrobatic convolutions to repair the damage caused by 30 years of underfunding, and at the same time, international tensions have raised the specter of high-intensity conflicts between states. Major, the hypothesis of sharing the costs of development and avoiding to develop several times the same technologies, would make it possible to make this operational reconstruction more flexible or even to accelerate by reducing the budgetary burden of states and armies.
National and European ambitions which are opposed
However, the difficult negotiations between Paris and Berlin on the subject of SCAF alone, showed that beyond this initial observation, each country followed its own industrial and political trajectory, generating severe tensions and difficult arbitrations. In fact, by taking into account only the budgetary and possibly technological parameter, we disregard the fact that each of these countries already has a defense aeronautical industry, the survival of which depends in part on the industrial load which will be attributed to it by the States themselves in the years and decades to come. Thus, when the German Hensoldt was appointed head of the sensor pillar of the SCAF program, this was necessarily done to the detriment of the French Thales, which will in fact have great difficulty in keeping its skills in some of these areas up to date. key, this having significant consequences on the future strategic autonomy of the country, but also on employment, and therefore on the budgetary return to State investments of the whole of the French defense industry.
More recently, the example of the Tiger 3 program, which was initially supposed to bring together Paris, Madrid and Berlin, but which inevitably sees the latter moving away in favor of the purchase of American Apache AH-64E combat helicopters, also shows that even when a program is advanced, the Tiger program being at work for more than 25 years, a partner can defect, which creates for the remaining partners important problems of sustainability. These aspects are all the more sensitive and notable when states follow geopolitical trajectories or have divergent industrial ambitions, or even in certain competing aspects, or when their defense doctrines have a low rate of overlap. It is, in this respect, in particular one of the reasons which hinder the good progress of the MGCS program today. And the more sensitive the program, the more the cooperation supposes a proximity of vision on a strategic scale, which is far from being the case between a France attached to its strategic independence, a Germany which considers itself European leader, a -Brittany and an Italy which position themselves as the linchpins of cooperation between Europe and the United States, and a Sweden which remains attached to its neutrality.
Major obstacles and threats for French Defense and its industry
Indeed, in the event of a merger between the two European programs, many difficulties will arise in bringing together divergent strategic ambitions and positions, in particular concerning France. Thus, for Paris, the SCAF and its main combat aircraft NGF (Next Generation Fighter .. and yes we mix French and English acronyms for simplicity), will have to be the replacement of the Rafale, that is to say an aircraft versatile capable of ensuring air superiority missions as well as land and sea strikes. In addition, it will have to replace the Rafale M on board the future new generation nuclear aircraft carrier which enters service in 2038 to replace the Charles de Gaulle, as well as the Rafale B which arm the two squadrons of the French strategic air component, by implementing the replacement for the ASMPA supersonic cruise missile.
These capabilities are however exclusive to France, none of the other European countries having an aircraft carrier equipped with a catapult or planning to have one, and none having its own nuclear strike capabilities. They are also largely dimensioning for the program itself, implying design constraints, as well as additional costs, which must apply to all the devices produced. In addition, for countries such as Great Britain and Italy, the Tempest program aims above all to replace the Typhoons in air superiority missions, the strike and on-board fighter components being, for their part, the responsibility of the F- American 35A and B, a program for which these two countries are major partners. But if the French requirements were already difficult to impose on Berlin and Madrid within the SCAF program, they will be even more difficult to defend against 4 countries sharing very similar needs for the replacement of Typhoons, and having no need for on-board devices or capable of deploying the new French hypersonic nuclear missile.
In addition, the increase in the number of partners will inevitably lead to an explosion of industrial sharing, which is already problematic for the French defense industry. Thus, the arrival of Great Britain will directly threaten two of the major pillars of the national BITD, namely Dassault Aviation which will have to put itself on an equal footing with British Aerospace, and the engine manufacturer Safran which, if it justifies know-how and experience far superior to the German MTU, will not be able to claim the same position against Rolls-Royce. As for Thales, already challenged against Hensoldt, Airbus DS and the Spanish Indra despite its precedence and its know-how, it will have to further reduce its footprint against the Italian giant Leonardo. In fact, the whole of the French defense aeronautics industry could well, at the end of such a program resulting from the merger of SCAF and FCAS, find itself largely handicapped by its know-how, but also of its personnel, in particular in the key sectors of Research and Development.
It should be noted, in this regard, that it was the same problems that led Paris to leave the European combat aircraft program in the mid-80s to develop its Rafale autonomously. There was, in fact, no question for the very European French government of the time, of sacrificing the strategic autonomy of the country, and that of its defense industry, in a program which, obviously, aimed at objectives different from those of France, moreover in a context of very high tensions linked to the Cold War. Today, the question arises in the same terms, whether it concerns the current SCAF program, and especially if it were to merge with the British-Italian FCAS. Therefore, we can expect, as was the case previously, that the French authorities will be the most difficult to convince of such a merger, which could well, in the long term, bring Paris out of this cooperation to develop its own system, as was the case for the Rafale.
Possible opportunities by changing paradigms
So, is it impossible to bring the two programs together, at least for France? Einstein used to say that one could not expect different results if one did not change the very parameters of the experiment. The same is true in this specific case. By remaining fixed on a program respecting the SCAF or FCAS format, the conclusion in the event of reconciliation is written in advance. To achieve this, it is therefore necessary to change the very paradigms of the resulting program, to broaden the horizons of this cooperation, and allow circles to coexist with squares. The solution could, in such a hypothesis, come from across the Atlantic, and more precisely from the approach adopted by the US Air Force for its Next Generation Air Dominance Program, the American counterpart of SCAF / FCAS. Initially, this program was to produce the replacement for the F-22 by 2030. But under the impetus of the very imaginative Will Roper, then the new USAF Chief of Staff, General Brown, this has evolved into a program of programs, namely that it will give birth not to a new device, but to a family of aircraft and combat systems, sharing a collaborative and technological DNA in a dynamic of constant technological evolution.
Applied to the European program, it would not be a question of developing an ultra-versatile Tempest / NGF capable of doing everything and evolving, but of developing 2 or even 3 more specialized devices over tiled technological cycles, each one enriched by developments others. It could act, for example, to develop a single-engine fighter by 2030/2035 to take over from the F-16, Mirage 2000 and JAS 39 (and thus fully integrate Sweden into the program), a medium fighter bomber with boarding capacity by 2035/2040 to take over from the Rafale and F / A 18s, then a heavy air superiority fighter by 2040/2045 to replace the Typhoons but also the F-15s for export. Other intermediate programs can, for their part, be integrated into the program of programs, with for example the development of combat drones and other Remote-Carrier / Loyal Wingmen, advanced detection and reconnaissance capabilities, or even hypersonic systems. even sub-space flights.
Such an approach would not only solve the problems purely related to the operational needs of each individual, even to the ambitions of cooperation with other systems such as the F-35 or the NGAD, but it would also make it possible to increase the industrial load in an efficient manner. and non-redundant, or even to promote the European consolidation of the defense industry, by offering increased atomicity of industrial sharing and R&D missions, for the benefit of the entire program. Finally, this approach would increase the opportunities for opening up to other European countries which, until now, have not imagined being able to join such an initiative, but which have an industry and skills that are rewarding and can be integrated into this initiative. scale, such as Greece, Belgium, Switzerland or the Netherlands, while offering a wide range of equipment on the international scene, and thus be able to face the increased competition that is developing in this sector.
The pressure of the operational calendar in the sights
The fact remains that, for such an ambition to see the light of day, it is essential to take into account a last parameter which will quickly impose on the very heart of the current SCAF and FCAS programs, with the risk of causing them to drop in mid-flight. . Indeed, the technological tempo and the timetable adopted for these two programs result from the perception of a need linked to the aging of the Rafale and Typhoon fleets. However, this parameter is in the process of being supplanted in the short term by another, linked to the technological and operational competition imposed by countries such as Russia and especially China, both of which are engaged on a technological trajectory with a steep slope. more pronounced than that followed by Europeans.
This observation is already at the heart of ongoing discussions across the Atlantic regarding the necessary changes that will need to be made to US military programming in the next few years, in order to stay in touch with developments led by Beijing. Let us recall that beyond the J-20 of air superiority, of its two-seater J-20S / A recently revealed probably specialized in the strikes and the control of combat drones, and of the on-board J-35, the American analysts estimate that the The Chinese defense industry is currently developing at least two more 5th generation fighter aircraft models. As for Russia, beyond the Su-57 which will soon begin to arrive in combat units, and the revelation of the single-engine Su-75 as an affordable 5th generation light / medium fighter, it is also developing advanced solutions in the field. heavy and medium combat drones, with timetables much shorter than those of European programs. These are all new threats which, coupled with international tensions, are likely to cause states and their armies to accelerate their own modernization programs, and therefore reduce the spread of spending planned for them, seriously threatening the unstable balances that underpin -extend European cooperation programs.
We understand that the merger or even the merger of the two European programs for new generation hunters is a complex subject, and it is risky to approach it without a perfect understanding of the issues that surround and condition it. If the process of rapprochement, essentially driven by the partners of the Eurofighter program, may appear simple and even natural for these countries, it is adorned with many obstacles and dangers as regards the participation of France, both from the point of view of industrial and operational view. To this must now be added a calendar which is not dictated by economic or political imperatives, but by the efforts of countries increasingly antagonistic to the West on the international scene.
Under these conditions, it seems essential to clarify, as quickly as possible, the positions of each, and in particular the reasons which led two European chiefs of staff at the heart of these programs to approach this subject in this way. If, in fact, Berlin has entered into discreet negotiations with London or Rome for this purpose, as it now seems to be the German line of conduct, it is essential for France to be informed, and that it be integrated. discussions, otherwise an episode like that of the Australian submarines could well happen again, this time between European nations. What is true for SCAF is, moreover, just as true for MGCS, as for all Franco-German cooperation programs. In any case, if such a merger can be envisaged, it seems essential to redefine in depth the ambitions and paradigms of this one, failing which, it is more than probable that once again, Paris will come to the fore. unilaterally develop its own program, while generating additional delays which could seriously hamper the operational and defensive capacities of the country.