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New turbulence for the future European combat aircraft

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(Paris) Will it take off one day? The Future Air Combat System (SCAF) project is blocked by rivalries between Dassault and Airbus and doubts about German participation, threatening this program presented as essential for European defense cooperation.

The project, launched in 2017 by France and Germany, since joined by Spain, is like a long way of the cross. A step was taken on August 30 with an intergovernmental financing agreement.

The agreement provides 3.6 billion euros for detailed studies, known as “phase 1B”, with a view to launching the construction of a flight demonstrator in 2025, a sort of pre-prototype of the future aircraft.

But since then, nothing.

The SCAF program is a “system of systems” which revolves around the aircraft with accompanying drones, all connected by combat cloud computing, with the other military means involved in an operation.


IMAGE PROVIDED BY AIRBUS

Computer representation of the future European combat aircraft, accompanied by armed drones.

However, the manufacturers of the three countries have agreed on six “pillars” of the program (engine, sensors, drones, etc.) but not on the last and most important, the new generation combat aircraft (NGF).

Things are frozen between Dassault, prime contractor for the aircraft, and its partner Airbus, which represents the interests of Germany and Spain.

As a result, the contracts allowing the start of phase 1B have still not been notified.

“I am ready to sign, I am waiting for the signature of Airbus”, tackled the boss of Dassault Aviation Éric Trappier on Friday, putting pressure before a European summit scheduled for March 10 and 11 in Versailles.


IMAGE DASSAULT

Europe’s future combat aircraft, as depicted in a computer-generated drawing by aircraft manufacturer Dassault.

Referring to the press of “additional requests” from Airbus since the intergovernmental agreement, he recalled his “red lines”: to have the means to ensure the project management for which he is responsible.

“More and more hypothetical”

Claiming to be “among the best in the world, if not the best in terms of flight controls”, Dassault does not intend to leave the responsibility to Airbus, even if German manufacturers such as Hensoldt and the European giant participate in their design. “If there is a problem, it’s on the other side of the Rhine,” he pointed out.

For his part, the president of Airbus Guillaume Faury acknowledged in mid-February that the “discussions (took) longer than expected, but it is not uncommon in this kind of negotiations”.

“We are trying to do everything we can to […] find an agreement and move forward,” he added.

The CEO of Dassault Aviation does not hesitate to raise the specter of a failure of the program: “In 2022, we will have to rule, we cannot remain at gunpoint, at some point we say yes or we say no “.

Dassault has already begun to reallocate some of the engineers from the design offices to other tasks, “or even the entire team soon”, because “we cannot leave a team of hundreds of engineers do nothing,” says Éric Trappier.

The SCAF, which should replace the French Rafale fighter planes and the German and Spanish Eurofighters by 2040, appears “increasingly hypothetical”, alarmed French deputies in a recent report.

In addition to the question of the division of labor between Dassault and Airbus, this is also due to the future need of Germany, they point out.

Berlin must acquire American F-18 or F-35 planes to continue to ensure its nuclear mission for the benefit of NATO, using American atomic bombs.

“Persistent rumors point to the Luftwaffe’s preference for the F-35 which, if acquired, would eliminate the German need for a new fighter by 2040” , fear the deputies Patricia Mirallès and Jean-Louis Thiérot in their report.

“We will see with our number one partner that is Germany if the first choice they make is to sign the SCAF contract or to buy the F-35”, observes Éric Trappier. While saying “convinced that they will buy the F-35”.



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