Luftwaffe Typhoon jets taking off for another mission.

Franco-German Fighter: Designing A Storm Or A Squall? [Opinion]

Last week, on July 13, France and Germany caused some ruckus in the media with the announcement that both countries would start working on the project for a new fighter jet, as well as other military vehicles. According to Flight Global, the French President Emmanuel Macron described the venture as part of a broader concept for the integration of several European partners in the development, deployment and export of combat equipment.

The aircraft manufacturer Airbus Defense & Space reacted positively to this “deep revolution,” and Fernando Alonso, the lead of the company’s military division, even suggested that the UK could be invited to the project. Chris Boardman, from the British BAE Systems, said he wasn’t opposed to the idea, and that he envisioned his company getting involved in the new fighter project at some point.

It should be noted that BAE is already invested in the Turkish TF-X fighter project, and that the discussions concerning the exit of the UK from the European Union have been marked by some sour moments. However, Boardman did add that what the Franco-German concept demonstrates is that Europe in general is catching up to what the rest of the world already realized: there is a need to develop manned fighters beyond the current generation.

Exciting as the notion seems to be from the standpoints of technological development and European integration, one should keep in mind that such ideas are not new, and that they haven’t developed exactly as expected in the past.

French President Emmanuel Macron climbs to Rafale jet during the 2017 Paris Air Show.
French President Emmanuel Macron climbs to a Rafale jet during the 2017 Paris Air Show. [Image by Michel Euler/AP Images]

In 1957, still little more than a decade after the end of World War II, France and Western Germany came together to design a new main battle tank for their armies. After some years of development and construction of opposing prototypes, one of the German proposals was chosen.

These were also times of complex political maneuvering within the scope of the Cold War. French President Charles de Gaulle saw NATO as an organization partial towards American and British interests, which led to the withdrawal of France in 1966 as the country sought greater autonomy in the diplomatic arena.

Even before the decision was taken, relations started to go sour with other NATO partners, which, among other developments, meant a split in the project for a European tank. The Germans would eventually create the Leopard 1, while the French pursued their own concepts, leading to the unveiling of the AMX-30.

Development of aircraft among European partners was equally complicated. During the Cold War the NATO partners mostly used combat aircraft of American design. Some native European models would become great successes, like the French Mirage series, but most of the air forces in the continent would be equipped with F-86s, F-104s, F-4s, and now the F-16s. Nevertheless, there was a notion that combat aircraft designed with European needs in mind were sorely needed.

There were attempts to develop a common European jet during the 1950s, but they usually went the same way the project for the European tank did. The Italian Fiat G.91 was supposed to become a common NATO light attacker, but saw service only with Italy, Germany and Portugal.

Sepecat Jaguar fighter-bomber during the Gulf War in 1991.
French Air Force Jaguar fighter-bomber during the Gulf War, in 1991. [Image by Michel Lipchitz/AP Images]

In the 1960s, though, two Franco-British projects would achieve some degree of success. The Concord is probably the most well-known. Lauded as the pioneer for a new era of supersonic commercial aviation, only 20 Concords were ever made even though the original and overly optimistic expectations predicted hundreds of sales to important airlines around the world.

The other project was the SEPECAT Jaguar, a ground-attack fighter jet. Although the base aircraft was the same for both the French and the British versions, there were small differences in sensor suites, and both countries had their own production lines. Entering service in 1973, the Jaguar proved to be an outstanding combat aircraft, resistant to damage and capable of carrying an effective payload.

Most Jaguars were decommissioned during the last 15 years, but India still uses the type. New Delhi developed an actualization program and intends to buy 31 of the surplus French units, as reported by Defense News India.

During the 1960s the necessity to replace the F-104s serving as the main interceptor aircraft throughout Europe and the notion that a swing-wing design could vastly improve the performances of combat aircraft paved the way for a new European fighter project. In 1969, the UK, Germany, Italy and the Netherlands formed Panavia, the company that would produce the new fighter.

As priorities shifted and the project itself changed, the original one-seat light interceptor gave way to the Tornado ground-attack aircraft. The spiraling costs and complexity drove the Netherlands away, but the type was used by the other countries, and it is still their premier interdiction aircraft.

The UK would develop an interceptor version of the Tornado to address the original terms of the project, but it wouldn’t really fulfill London’s expectations.

RAF Tornado fighter during exercises in the Czech Republic in 2007.
RAF Tornado ground-attack jet during exercises in the Czech Republic, in 2007. [Image by Pavlicek Lubos/AP Images]

Thus, Europe was still without a native air superiority fighter. This realization drove the need for the Eurofighter. France, Germany, Spain, Italy, and the UK joined forces in an attempt to share costs and pool technical knowledge in order to make a fighter able to deal with the more advanced Soviet aircraft and air defense systems. Unfortunately, there were constant squabbles about cost and weight, with Paris aspiring for a smaller aircraft that could also be launched from aircraft carriers.

Such disagreements led to the French withdrawal from the project in order to pursue their own type, which would become the Dassault Rafale.

Both the Eurofighter Typhoon and the Rafale are quite similar in most aspects, including the delta layout with canards and two engines. Technical analysis and testimonies from aviation specialists place both machines among the best combat aircraft in the world, but their impact in the defense industry was not equal.

Around 500 Typhoons were built until now. The Rafale found much fewer orders, just around 200, and the production schedule was lowered several times in order to control costs and to keep the production lines alive while additional orders were sought across the world. Some pinpoint these difficulties to the fact that Dassault gained a name in the market for small single-engine fighters like the Mirage, and that the Rafale was thus forcing the company to compete in a different market, in which the Typhoon was already established.

But markets and military needs keep changing. Newer combat aircraft are much more expensive to acquire and maintain compared to their predecessors, being associated with ballooning defense expenditures.

Moreover, the hope that aircraft like the F-35 would be the last manned fighters seems to have been dashed by the limitations of drone technology. Modern air forces are now understanding that larger combat aircraft will need to keep men in their cockpits for a few more decades.

To top it all, European allies, like the U.S., seem to be becoming increasingly less reliable, forcing Europeans to rely on themselves for defense. Unfortunately, the dependence on Washington to defend Europe from conventional threats convinced several governments throughout the continent that they needed not to invest so much in defense. This means that now that new threats and rivalries are emerging, Europe needs to make efforts to rearm itself.

Repeatedly described as being an ‘Europeist’ by the media, Emmanuel Macron was seen as a hope for European integration, and his agreement with Chancellor Angela Merkel may strengthen that agenda. Historically, defense is one of the major pillars for social unification. However, one has to realize that the history of European defense projects is a shaky one, marred by antagonistic national interests and great amounts of fruitless bickering.

Although some projects were successful, many others failed to find purchase, and even the successes were mostly marred by concessions and less than ideal outcomes.

Finally, and as noted by the Telegraph, the UK is the largest partner in the Eurofighter program, and a historical central investor for the previous European combat aircraft projects. A pan-European defense proposal without London on it is like a slap in the face of the UK, driving the country to rely more on the Americans.

For the new ideas to function, the European partners will need to put some of their differences aside and actually work together. As we know, that does not happen easily.

[Featured Image by Martin Meissner/AP Images]

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