What are the industrial implications for the UK if France and Germany co-operate on a next-generation combat aircraft? Professor KEITH HAYWARD FRAeS looks at historical parallels.  

News last week that Germany and France are to discuss a range of joint military aerospace projects, including a manned combat aircraft, is ominous for companies on this side of the Channel. It would make sense for both industrially: neither is part of the F-35 programme, and cooperation it would solve some emerging problems – what to do about Airbus Defence as Typhoon winds down and confirm a future for Dassault beyond the Rafale. The Anglo-French combat UCAV agreement notwithstanding, cooperation without the UK could mark a watershed in European collaboration. 

Aerospace as a bridge to Europe

What are the implications for the Anglo-French FCAS project from a Franco-German combat aircraft programme?   

Taking a long view, to cite a fine BBC radio programme that draws historical parallels with contemporary events, the UK has been here before, but with significantly more grounds for optimism. In the early 1960s, following the breakdown in talks to join the then European Economic Community (EEC), the Concorde was viewed as a means to maintain links with Britain's neighbours. Writing to Prime Minister Harold Macmillan, the then Minister of Aviation Julian Amery referred to the need to “continue to co-operate in all fields where it is of practical advantage for us do so.” In a letter to his French opposite number, he wrote, “I do not see how countries like ours will long be able to maintain the military strength which their political responsibility requires unless we can share some of the work together… France and Britain seem to be well on the way to a large-scale joint enterprise on the civil side with the supersonic airliner. It would indeed be a great thing if we could match this achievement with some similar joint endeavour in the sphere of defence”.  

Things go poire-shaped  

The French withdrawal from the joint BAC/Dassault AFVG project left the UK high and dry.

However, in 1967 the collapse of the Anglo-French Variable Geometry aircraft programme and Britain’s departure from the European Launcher Development Organisation (ELDO) left a top British civil servant wondering where the UK might look for partners: “There is no route on our own, who is the best partner? USA is too big for comfort, France too chauvinist for reliability. Germany? Italy, Holland (too small). I conclude, until we go in the EEC, we should cooperate where we can, putting Germany first”.  

A year later, things were looking better, despite a second EEC veto from the French: The UK had almost signed up Germany and Italy to kick-off what became the Tornado. At this point, together membership of the emerging Airbus coalition, aerospace was seen as a vital link with Europe – showing that Britain's technology was a vital element in Europe’s industrial future. 

Fifty years on the bridge is looking a bit shaky

A European F-35 like programme? Airbus Defence revealed this Tornado successor concept in 2016. (Airbus DS)

But 50 years on, where does the UK go now? London will be signed up to the European subsidiary of Lockheed Martin International and contacts with the US will be generally important on the military side.  There may be a role as ‘boutique’ design consultants to emerging industries. The UK will possibly have a European UCAV programme with the French; MBDA in the missile sector; and of course a substantial slice still of Airbus – at least for a while. 

But a continental industrial coalition centring on Airbus and Dassault with electronics and other equipment companies sheltered by what might become, without UK opposition, a protected defence market, and backed by a growing EU-funded R&D budget, might achieve for aerospace what Napoleon failed with his Continental System. Not that this is necessarily a healthy future for Europe – closure might lead to inefficiency and loss of access to a wider technological market place. But it might also create sufficient space for key industrial assets to survive continued American pressure – a new Defi Americain, to cite another pundit from the mid-1960s – as well as competition from newer aerospace centres in the Far East. 

More remoaning? – Well as the UK drift evers closer to an institutional rupture with its European neighbours, the climate is being defined as much by the actions of others. Aerospace was once a bridge across the Channel – the UK may have rapidly to shore up an increasingly dilapidated structure.

Professor Keith Hayward
21 July 2017