International co-operation in the field of defence equipment development has always been subject to the vagaries of national politics. It is probable that many TMT readers will recall the attempts to produce a European armoured vehicle family based upon a common platform in the 1990s: MBAV, MRAV and so on. So many acronyms came and went that it was hard to keep pace. However, it was an example of how difficult it was – and still is, to satisfy all parties involved that the research and rewards are being shared equally and that the end-result is worth the candle.
In the mid-90s, as far as MRAV was concerned, it became apparent that the French and Germans had stolen something of a march on the initially reluctant Brits who, as a result, were left with what on the face of it looked like a decent chunk of heavy engineering (building the hull), but which was, in reality, a very miserly share of the project in terms of value and technology. And so the UK pulled out of the programme (citing the preference for tracks rather than wheels), and we went on a magical-mystery tour by way of FFLAV and then FRES – with a bit of TRACER thrown in for good measure (which turned into AJAX SV of course).
The infantry component of this wheeled vehicle solution was a bit of a late starter. However, the current CGS, being an infanteer, has pushed this programme hard and, as of the 2nd of April, in an ironic twist, the UK has declared itself for the German Boxer 8×8, almost precisely the vehicle it rejected all those years ago for being “wheeled”. There is a feeling amongst some that this whole programme is “much too much and much too late”. An alternative might have been to have extended the fleet of Mastiffs which were intended to be capable of being “stretched“ to an 8×8 version. But of course that would have been too easy and in any case it is now water under the bridge.
With all this history in mind, it is not a complete surprise, therefore, that the French National Audit Office has declared that it wishes future international co-operative programmes to be limited to two or three partners only, all of which should have very similar political imperatives and converging financial resources. It also indicated that a single (French) company should be the project manager.
That said, the NAO also acknowledges that there is going to be a growing role for the European Organisation for Joint Armament Cooperation (OCCAR). This is a nod to the fact that France currently supports moves to greater integration of European defence activities. It also signifies a probable desire to firmly establish a leading (not to say dominant) role in future European defence research activity.
There is little doubt that France wants to try to limits its exposure to financial losses as a result of partners pulling out of joint defence projects. Some reports say, for example, that the failed Anglo-French Carrier project cost the French some 200m Euros. In other cases the equipments were bought – but in such reduced quantities that unit costs became too high to be able to stick to the planned quantities. Examples include the Tiger attack and NH 90 transport helicopters.
The boot is very much on the other foot in the case of the FREMM multi mission frigate which France and Italy are developing and building; France has cut its order from 17 to eight units, although Italy is sticking to its initial order for 10. That said, Fincantieri Marine Group of Italy are trying to help matters by marketing a version of FREMM to the US Navy’s FFG (X) competition.
It remains to be seen whether France can reconcile its desire to limit cooperation to a few countries only while at the same time pushing Europe towards greater defence integration at all levels. Is this the beginning of a twin-track European defence policy? It is hard to say today. But while it does make sense from an historic perspective, it rather flies in the face of all that we hear about French desires for a future European Army.