Imperilled Franco-German Armament Projects
endanger European Defense Plans

April 30, 2021 | European Security and Defense

Executive Summary

France and Germany want to lead on European defense but are not yet in lockstep

  1. Key Franco-German armament projects provide an opportunity to increase the EU’s overall strategic autonomy, to consolidate the fragmented European defence sector, and to leverage synergies.

  2. Yet, several cultural and systemic hurdles persist, such as different strategic requirements and industry set-ups as well as export regulations, project governance and political decision-making processes.

  3. The federal election in Germany in September 2021, and in particular the likely participation of the Greens in the next government, will be decisive for such joint projects and their effect on Europe.

Watch out for

  • June 2021: German Bundestag decision on next stage for MGCS and FCAS expected, with prior agreement needed on Intellectual Property Rights (for FCAS) and distribution of work packages (for MGCS).

  • 26 September 2021: Federal election in Germany, followed by coalition talks

  • 10-24 April 2022: Presidential election in France (two rounds)

Key Facts

  • Future Combat Air System (FCAS): joint French (lead nation) – German – Spanish program; successor system of French Rafale and German Eurofighter fleet; planned entry into service in 2040

  • Main Ground Combat System (MGCS): joint German (lead nation) – French program; successor system for German Leopard and French Leclerc battle tank; planned entry into service in 2035.

State of Play

Joint Franco-German armament projects are at risk – again

For months, Paris and Berlin have been struggling to enter the next development phase for FCAS. Recently, French company Dassault Aviation announced an agreement regarding the division of the work packages between all main industry partners, including European aircraft manufacturer Airbus. Nevertheless, a final agreement on Intellectual Property Rights (IPR) is still pending. In the 2019 Treaty of Aachen, France and Germany had agreed to support the closest possible cooperation between their respective defense industries. Yet, the case of the FCAS illustrates their difficult relationship when it comes to armament cooperation. Already once, a common effort to build a European fighter jet ended up in separate projects, the British-German-Italian Eurofighter and the French-only Rafale. Developing the FCAS now and commissioning it by 2040 is Europe’s most ambitious defence endeavour. The overall costs are not quantified but estimates vary between €50-100 bn. Together with the Main Ground Combat System (MGCS) – a smaller German-led project, but still with an expected double-digit billion Euro budget– it is seen as a litmus test for French-German armament cooperation. Politically, both projects are closely connected but they vary in volume, timeline and set-up. In addition, cultural and systemic hurdles are in the way of better using synergies between member states and increasing the EU’s strategic autonomy.

Key Issues

Aligning different strategic requirements and industry set-ups

The strategic requirements of France and Germany do not always align, and consensus must first be found for setting up joint projects. In case of the future MGCS, Germany strives for a heavier main battle tank serving both national and alliance defense. France, in contrast, is looking for a system that can be used primarily in rapid crisis response scenarios, for example in Africa. As for the FCAS weapons system, France puts more urgency on timely fighter development, as its Rafale jet is to be replaced from the mid-2020s onwards, whereas Germany’s Eurofighter is to remain in service until 2036.

The situation is further complicated by the fact that the industrial structure of the two countries is very different, especially in the defence sector. Originally mostly state-owned, French defense companies still maintain significant proximity to the government because of their special strategic mission. In Germany, the federal government tends to keep its distance from the mostly privately-owned defence contractors, partly because many projects got out of hand in terms of cost and duration. In addition, German industry is more fragmented and medium-sized companies (the famous ‘Mittelstand’) play a special role in Germany. This does not always make it easy for a large player like Airbus, the main contractor on the side of the lead nation, to find a common ‘German’ position.

Bridging cultural and systemic differences in the name of Europe

In addition, ambitious Franco-German armament projects are faced with cultural and systemic differences, some of which must be overcome while others must be respected to succeed. For example, Germany initiates joint armament plans at the ministerial level in departmental coordination, with the Bundestag ultimately deciding on funding. In France, the Elysee is the central deciding authority on armament issues, able to commit resources beyond the horizon of electoral periods. Therefore, despite commitments of the government and the chancellor personally, party politics always play into German decision-making.

Finally, arms exports are extremely controversial in Germany compared to France, thus posing a major challenge. Estimates for the total cost of an FCAS are in the three-digit billion range. This project would therefore not be feasible without an opportunity to export the system to third countries. In the Aachen Treaty, the two countries launched the first regulations for a joint export policy, which Berlin has yet to put into practice. While the issue in France is viewed primarily in terms of foreign policy, in Germany it is almost exclusively a domestic policy debate.

Now, all eyes are to the federal election in Germany in September, with the race to succeed Chancellor Merkel being wide open. According to current polls, the Green Party will be part of the next governing coalition. This brings additional uncertainty: Even though the Greens are committed to a more restrictive arms export policy, the party also promotes closer European cooperation, based on a strong partnership with France. Whether the Greens can reach a compromise on these conflicting aims will be decisive for joint Franco-German armament efforts bearing fruit in the long-term, thus providing also an example – and a real-world impetus – to develop a more integrated European defense.

Strategy Group AGORA