Few things in the realm of defense are as enticing as the prospect of a new fighter aircraft. Now, Franco-German cooperation could not only yield a next generation jet fighter, but boost defense integration on the Continent. The two countries agreed in July to proceed with the development of a new jet to eventually replace their existing fighter fleets. The decision, which French President Emmanuel Macron labeled a "far-reaching revolution," also has broad implications for global fighter sales. However, it will take more than a joint fighter project to satisfy Franco-German ambitions for greater European defense integration.
The Costs of Defense
Given the sheer costs of developing a next generation fighter — with its requisite stealth, cutting-edge avionics and highly advanced engine — it is not clear that any Western European country can afford to go it alone anymore. Combining resources and design efforts improves the chances of a next generation jet emerging from Europe. This in turn would enable Europe to compete with fighters from the United States, Russia and China. Then European countries could not only avoid having to import foreign — most likely U.S.-made — fighter aircraft, but could also compete in the global defense market by exporting their designs.
The United Kingdom, Germany, Italy and Spain collaborated on the previous European project, the Eurofighter Typhoon. France was set to join the project but dropped out because of differences over design specifications and work share. Paris created its own fighter instead, the Rafale. When it comes to replacing the Typhoon and Rafale, European countries must once again decide who exactly will participate in the project.
And this question intersects with the broader issue of European defense
. With the United Kingdom set to leave the European Union, France and Germany are determined to accelerate their plans for greater defense integration. While London has been happy to collaborate on joint defense projects with other European countries, the United Kingdom has traditionally been a major hindrance to European defense integration, preferring instead to focus exclusively on the North Atlantic Treaty Organization as a vehicle for multilateral defense.
Who Will Take Part?
Thus, the surprise announcement from France and Germany was all the more notable for its exclusion of the United Kingdom. But it is too early to rule out British participation. In fact, the United Kingdom will more than likely play a part at the secondary level, as it has with the American F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. However, being involved in the latter stages of a fighter program is considerably different from being involved during the planning stages when operational requirements, design specifications and much of the work share are set.
As London ponders the implications of a Franco-German fighter project on its defense industry prospects, Paris and Berlin are coming to grips with the considerable constraints that remain ahead of tighter European defense integration. There are certainly advantages to close coordination, including setting up industries of scale, eliminating redundancies and duplication, enhancing interoperability, streamlining maintenance and lowering costs. Nevertheless, the path ahead is beset with obstacles, and a fighter jet project is not enough to remove them.
As highlighted by France's departure from the Eurofighter project, disputes over work share and design authority have long plagued joint EU defense projects. Poland recently argued that Western European powers need to look upon it and other Eastern European states as equal industrial participants and not as client states if joint procurement is to be a success. As the dispute between France and Italy over the sale of the bankrupt STX shipyard shows, economic considerations over jobs and proprietary technologies can also pose considerable hurdles to greater collaboration, even when such collaboration is driven by greater strategic considerations — in this case France and Italy's desire to set up a naval equivalent of the Airbus aeronautics company.
However, the greatest obstacles are the starkly different defense priorities from region to region and even from country to country in Europe. This is not just a question of one country's putting a higher priority on tanks over naval vessels or aircraft, for instance. It also comes down to how much money and effort should be invested to defense to begin with. Ultimately, national interests drive decision-making in Europe, and these interests can diverge sharply. For all its considerable collaboration, the European Union remains a collection of states rather than a single unified nation. In the realm of defense, it will remain exceedingly difficult to set up seamless decision-making absent unified political authority.