A modest first step, but a first step nonetheless. The Minister of Armies Florence Parly and her German counterpart Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer sign this Thursday, February 20 at the Hôtel de Brienne an R&T contract (research and technologies) which finally gives a little fuel in the SCAF project (air combat system of the future), the future Franco-German fighter plane planned for 2040. Sign of the importance of the project, the signature brings together a nice areopagus of European defense, with the presence of the boss of Dassault Aviation Eric Trappier, CEO of Airbus Defense & Space Dirk Hoke, CEO of Thales Patrice Caine, CEO of Safran Philippe Petitcolin and his successor Olivier Andriès, as well as General Delegate for Armaments Joël Barre.
What does the contract consist of? Worth 149.5 million euros, financed equally by Paris and Berlin, it kicks off the development of a first prototype of the future device, which should fly from 2026. This demonstrator should be fitted with engines derived from the Rafale M88. It will give a first indication of the final characteristics of the future Franco-German combat aircraft, which is to succeed the Rafale and the Eurofighter. Franco-German, or rather Franco-German-Spanish: Spain, which joined the project in February 2019, is contributing 2 million euros to the program, and should invest an additional 45 million euros during the year 2020.
(Embed) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Bohg2fTJN2o (/ embed)
In detail, the 18-month contract funds five main research pillars. 91 million euros will be spent on the aircraft itself, the NGF (New Generation Fighter), under the supervision of Dassault, with Airbus as main partner. 18 million euros will finance the development of the engine, entrusted to Safran, with the German MTU by subcontracting. 19.5 million euros will be earmarked for “remote carriers”, the accompanying drones that will support the combat aircraft for missions to saturate enemy defenses or reconnaissance. Airbus is piloting this third pillar, with MBDA as the main partner. The “combat cloud”, an information system intended to make devices talk to each other, is the subject of an investment of 14.5 million euros, and is entrusted to Airbus and Thales. Finally, a final pillar, dedicated to simulation, is the subject of an investment of 6.5 million euros, divided between Dassault, Airbus, Safran and MTU.
50 to 80 billion euros
The idea is to use this relatively modest contract as a springboard for the next stages of development, which will require much higher sums. According to the timetable envisaged by Paris and Berlin, France and Germany must invest 4 billion euros in the program by 2025, and 8 billion euros by 2030. According to an expert interviewed by Challenges in 2019, the total cost of the SCAF program can be estimated between 50 and 80 billion euros. “Our goal is to move forward as quickly as possible to make the project irreversible, we explain to Florence Parly's office. This will be the case when we have advanced enough for the exit cost to be too high. “
In the meantime, the SCAF project remains at the mercy of political and industrial upheavals on both sides of the Rhine, which have already derailed it from the planned schedule. Originally, the demonstrator contract was to be signed in June 2019 at the Paris Air Show. He was finally initialed eight months late. Despite its modest amount, the contract encountered multiple pitfalls: Franco-German disputes over arms exports, a disagreement between Safran and MTU over the management of the development of the SCAF engine, but also – and above all – the Bundestag's reluctance to validate the project.
German MPs did not show an overwhelming enthusiasm when they voted on February 12 for the 75 million euros of the German part of the contract. “We will do it because we do not want to deteriorate Franco-German relations, and this just before the arrival of French President Emmanuel Macron this weekend in Germany for the Munich security conference,” Rainer said last week. Brandl, the rapporteur for the project in the Bundestag Budget Committee. We have had more fervent support.
German MPs have taken care to match their support for the project with seven preconditions. The main one is that the tank program of the future, the MGCS (Main Ground Combat System), under German piloting, is advancing at the same pace as the SCAF project, under French piloting. France and Germany have given pledges on the subject: a first study contract on this successor to the Leclerc and Leopard tanks should be signed in March or April, said the Ministry of the Armed Forces. The contract will cover 9 research pillars, including a third entrusted to the French Nexter, a third to the German KMW and another third to the other big German player, Rheinmetall. The Bundestag also requires quarterly reporting on the SCAF and MGCS programs, maintenance of key technologies in Germany, and a meeting clause in June to verify that all commitments are met.
German deputies know they are in a position of strength. Under German law, they are entitled to demand a vote to validate each tranche of 25 million euros in funding. In the case of SCAF, this uncertainty would be catastrophic. “It is as if you are building a house, and your banker only finances the work for you slab by slab, and brick by brick,” summarizes Senator Cédric Perrin, vice-chairman of the Committee on Foreign Affairs and Defense. of the Senate.
What place for Spain?
Another uncertainty is the place that will be given to Spain in the program. It was already difficult to get French and German industrialists to agree on the sharing of the industrial load. The role of the Spanish groups will bring additional complexity. Madrid has already created a pretty diplomatic-industrial incident by appointing Indra, its defense electronics specialist, as Spanish industry coordinator on the SCAF, when Airbus was a candidate. “The choice was a mistake,” said Airbus chief Guillaume Faury in the group’s annual results on February 13.