Although its combined defence spending is dwarfed by the USA’s fiscal might, Europe currently has an embarrassment of riches in the fighter sector, with three models toughing it out for export deals.
That could all change, however, if a proposal from Airbus Defence & Space’s head of military aircraft is to become a reality. Little more than a week before the aerospace industry gathered for its annual showcase event in Paris, Fernando Alonso invited France to work alongside Germany and Spain on a project intended to develop a successor to the Eurofighter Typhoon. Even bolder was his suggestion that such an activity could be pursued without the UK, due to uncertainty over the industrial impact of its EU exit strategy.
At one point in the past, Paris was aligned with its neighbours on pursuing a common fighter, but needs diverged and it instead tasked Dassault with creating the Rafale: one of the Typhoon’s fiercest export rivals. By doing so, Europe duplicated investment in key technologies, before unveiling products which appear to be strikingly similar to all but the well-trained eye.
Consolidating fighter manufacturing is a noble vision – but is it one that makes practical sense?
As seen during ambitious initiatives over the past few years, such as on the pan-European Neuron unmanned combat air vehicle demonstrator and the Anglo-French future combat air system, manufacturers are willing and able to work together… right up to the point where someone has to give up work to a foreign partner. Would Airbus sacrifice a Spanish final assembly line for a future type, or France export opportunities, for the greater good of the continent as a whole?
Having the Rafale and Typhoon go head-to-head – and in competition with Saab’s single-engined Gripen in some cases – is good for Europe, and for the industry champions in all those nations which want to retain vital skills and national control over their combat assets. One may triumph in Egyptian and Indian contests in part due to industrial heritage or geopolitical influence, while the other can win in Gulf states such as Kuwait and Saudi Arabia for the very same reasons. It is by no means certain that a combined entity would win both.
Perhaps the Paris air show will offer an indication of France’s response to Alonso’s call to join formation on future fighters. But with the Rafale’s production backlog currently stretching beyond that of the Typhoon, it would seem unlikely that it would decide to apply full afterburners just now.