Against the backdrop of geostrategic tensions and the war in Ukraine, President Macron announced at Eurosatory that we are “entering a war economy.” But where does the French and European defense industry stand? Here is an overview in five episodes.
The reality of the European defense industry (4/5)
By Procopius of Caesarea*
One may ask: why do all the leading European countries equip themselves with American equipment? Is there a tropism that makes them lean towards the USA? The answer is no, it is due to the current mediocrity of the European defense industry.
Let’s look at the case of military helicopters, remembering that they are a sensitive (and expensive) element of military capability:
- March 2021. AFP: Is Germany considering replacing its European Tiger attack helicopters with American AH-64E Apache? Known answer: yes
- December 21, 2021: the Australian government has decided to stop using its 47 Airbus-produced MHR90 helicopters, in favor of American aircraft (Black Hawks and Seahawks).
- June 10, 2022: Norway cancelled its contract for 14 European NH90 helicopters and asked for a refund (see Norwegian recriminations on the Internet)
- June 12, 2022: Sweden suggests that it is taking the same path.
In all these cases, the customer expresses deep dissatisfaction with the quality of the equipment, which hinders or even prevents operational use. Even on the French side, users are expressing dissatisfaction with availability (to say the least). This is not to mention the important off-shore market for helicopters, a civilian market in which Airbus has practically been pushed out.
The situation will get worse
The current inability of the European industry to supply the armed forces with heavy and medium-heavy helicopters is clear. As for combat helicopters, the situation is no better, despite all the hype: the Apache is considered a ‘standard’ in the West. We are also witnessing a strong integration of other European manufacturers into the American ecosystem (e.g. Leonardo). The situation will worsen with the appearance of “electric aircraft”, for which the armed forces will be the first customer. In this field, Europe does not even exist.
The problems of operational use are so serious that they favor the control of Nato (and therefore of the United States) in areas where it is not really expected: the NH90 helicopter fleet is 100 for France and 131 for Germany.
June 10, 2022: NOS (NH90 Operational Support) contract is signed between NH Industries (Airbus + Leonardo + Fokker) and NATO for maintenance.
Clearly, the maintenance of the French Army’s tactical transport helicopters will be handled solely by NATO. This is an excellent example of the disappearance of sovereignty in favor of NATO: whoever holds maintenance holds availability and then holds employment. It is the same in many areas where the desired European concertation inevitably passes through the common actor that is NATO (this decerebrate according to Macron).
The Ukrainian affair
I quote a recent anecdote that has the merit of showing the state of mind that can reign in this European defense industry dear to Macron.
The Ukrainian affair woke everyone up and it was revealed that the availability of the global NH90 fleet ranges from 25 to 40%! NHIndustries has been forced to react and has just released its umpteenth improvement plan, and is pleased to have only NATO as its interlocutor in Europe (meeting in Marseille on May 19, 2022, in which Airbus says it will move from “contract management focus” to “services focus”, with a 24-month “retrofit process”…).
The surprise came from the late but remarkable intervention of the President of NHIndustries… who declared straight away that her company had little to do with the availability problems: it was everybody’s fault but NHI’s: Covid’s fault, the fault of the equipment manufacturers, the fault of the armed forces unable to foresee spare parts stocks, the fault of employment in difficult conditions, etc. All in all, a very reassuring speech for the customer.
It is tiresome to list other important areas: the Airbus Tiger attack helicopters are praised – again, availability is disappointing – Australia has fired them in favor of the Apache. We can also perceive the lack of interest of Germany, which has still not joined the Tiger Mk3 upgrade program: this bodes well for an American Apache purchase before long… I’ll take the date!
Lack of spare parts
The same is true in all areas of armaments. In the field of combat aircraft, availability problems are now recognized as glaring: the Rafale’s availability rate is less than 50% due to a lack of spare parts… This does not call into question the quality of the aircraft, but rather its use (what’s the point of having an aircraft if you can’t use it?).
Last Easter, the French Air Force stopped 3 Rafales to “cannibalize” them… In Egypt, a third of the Rafales were stopped for 3 months because of… expiry of the ejection seat cartridges… no seat, no flight!
The response from manufacturers is often that availability is not really their problem, because they don’t deal with logistics – the argument is valid, but it can be said that very often unavailability is favored by the objective mediocrity of the equipment.
Example: the M88 reactor has an MTBF that is not comparable to that of a GE F414 (we don’t give the figures for charity), the same goes for the RBE2…. radar – in these cases, the ‘necessary maintenance work outside of breakdowns’ is in a ratio of 1 to 5!
The crash of drones
All fields of armament are concerned. One example is drones. This kind of military tool has been flatly despised by the European military aeronautics (I am a direct witness for Dassault: 1985 – we make fighter planes, Sir). Then, faced with the operational military success of these machines, Europe reacted. The result: Thales (a major world-class equipment manufacturer) made a tactical drone (translated as a small drone with ridiculous performance) called the WatchKeeper: it is now on its 7th crash!
This seventh crash for Thales’s drone could once again call into question the company’s skills as a systems integrator in the eyes of the markets” – the word “could” is outdated. Safran has developed the Patroller (also a small drone): a feat on their own account, on December 6, 2021 in Istres, in an official presentation to the armed forces, they managed to crash it… “During a reception flight by the armies on Friday, December 6, Safran lost control of its drone, which crashed near Istres without causing any casualties.” The Patroller is a showcase for the group’s expertise in tactical UAVs, and its main hope for exports in this field. Today, we’re waiting for news about the Patroller….
Ten years behind
In passing, we note the worldwide industrial importance of drones (10 times the turnover of Dassault), the market is captured by the Chinese. They have replaced the Americans, who used to make a lot of fuss to sell theirs. Even Turkey has successfully launched itself in attack drones, and their Bayraktar drone is getting excellent publicity in Ukraine. Europe has distinguished itself only by projects without results.
The European must-have is the Euromale UAV, a drone comparable to the American UAVs of the previous decade (if it succeeds, it will be 30 years late!).
In January 2022: Spain joins Germany, France and Italy to build the largest military drone in Europe. The project is only 10 years late despite the funding (Macron would say “a lot of money”…).
Germany (which no longer allows itself to be dictated to by France) has demanded that the engine be the Catalyst from General Electric. France is making a fuss, because it supports its engine manufacturer Safran, a company which (apart from the small Turbomeca turbines) consistently demonstrates a costly capacity for failure (see the SilverCrest).
Germany recalled that the A400M engine (a military transport aircraft program that is still unfinished, but which holds the undisputed world record for development costs) was saved by GE (through its subsidiary Avio). Everything fits together, and this is the Scaf affair, for which Germany asserts that Safran (in charge of the engine with MTU) does not have the competence to build the necessary engine. And Dassault, which had to abandon its Falcon 5X (at great expense) because of Safran’s SilverCrest, is having a hard time explaining the excellence of this company and defending it, as was its duty as “leader” of the French side.
This gives us an idea of the good atmosphere that prevails everywhere in French projects.
Projects doomed to failure
Incidental opinion: this is not a scientifically established fact but an opinion expressed by participants (at decision-making levels) in ‘major programs decided at the political level’. Some of them express themselves privately (often forgetting that they have actively participated in the mistakes they denounce). The opinion (based on their experience and on the wisdom that comes to them when they are no longer ‘in the loop’) is that these projects are always doomed to failure.
It is observed, they say, that the slightest difficulty, instead of being resolved ‘technically’, degenerates into a ‘political’ conflict: everyone defends his or her ‘piece of the pie’ and the very idea of the ‘common good’ is evacuated. Very often, a prominent actor even has a secret interest in the failure or the indefinite extension of a program whose success would contravene his industrial interests. This kind of opinion reinforced the prediction written more than three years ago that the ‘Australian submarines’: it’s a bust! For the Scaf, the evidence spoke for itself. Political programs try to get people with competing or even diverging interests to cooperate; as these programs are always well funded, the never-confessed but real ‘practice’ is ‘you take all you can get, while it lasts…’.
In the past, the European program Hermes (space shuttle) is a caricatural example.
56 billion gone up in smoke
The above demonstration can be extended to almost all sectors of the arms industry. It would be too tedious to list the examples. But we will mention the ‘maritime’ case: it is true that Australia, within the framework of the Quad, has revised its ambitions upwards in order to ‘follow’ the Pacific operational norm. Inevitably, the French project, in spite of an American weapon system, did not fit anymore. And compensation or not, it’s a 56 billion euro budget that has gone up in smoke – it’s the ‘life’ of 30% of DCNS that has been amputated, and for the long term.
We are still talking about the sensitive subject of tanks for the army. A third part of Macron: the MGCS (Main Ground Combat System) – in 2020 Germany and France launched an architecture study… which we are still waiting for in 2022 (funny thing: Mme Parly assured before her departure that business was going ‘well’ – the new minister, when questioned, stammered, then kicked the ball, leaving the impression that the program did not mean anything to him…. Meanwhile, RheinMetall is cooperating with General Dynamics on the successor to the Abrams tank … what do we think will happen when the Pentagon itself hints that it will entrust the industrialization of its tank to Germany?
Conclusion: the European defence industry is no longer in a position to design and manufacture the defence tools considered necessary in the face of foreseeable military threats. The facts prove a little more each day that it is mediocre and that it can only pretend to industrialize and subcontract. It has lost the majority of the ‘markets’ that were ‘rightfully’ hers by lack of supply and as a direct consequence, she has lost all autonomy.
*Procopius of Caesarea (6ᵉ century A.D. is a Byzantine rhetorician and historian whose work is devoted to the reign of the emperor Justinian). This is of course a pseudonym. The one of a person very well informed of the technological, political and geostrategic stakes of our time.
Next article: “The European defense industry facing the future” (5/5)