“I would like to recall that in 2017 President Emmanuel Macron and the German Chancellor Merkel set up a very ambitious agenda in armaments programmes, to foster our strategic autonomy……The one we are talking a lot about right now, FCAS or NGWS, is not only an incredibly ambitious technological project……Not only is it highly strategic, but it is also living proof of our trust in Europe, and more particularly in the strength of the French-German relationship. It is something that you can only do with true friends, the ones who stand by their word, who are well aware that our national destinies go hand in hand with our European identity and commitment”.
A tale of three cities
February 22nd, 2021. In the wake of last week’s virtual NATO defence ministerial, US Secretary of Defence, Lloyd J. Austin III, said "I….stressed our ironclad commitment to the security guarantee under Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty," and "I don't use that word 'ironclad' lightly. Our shared responsibility as allies – our duty – is to protect our populations and our territory. And to meet that duty we require what the secretary general refers to as credible deterrence and defense." Amen to that, but what does credible deterrence and defence need?
The purpose of the meeting was in part to discuss the future of the Alliance with the new Biden administration following the publication of a report by the NATO Reflection Group that looked out to 2030. The theme of the debate was one of rejuvenation and reset. All well and good. However, they missed what is fast becoming a raging bull elephant in the increasingly China-paid for Euro-shop: the collapse in trust between Europe’s three most powerful cities, London, Paris and Berlin.
When I first read the Parly statement I must admit my first reaction was that she was having another ‘go’ at Britain. Following Brexit Paris has seemed to revel in doing damage to Britain. From fishing to financial services and from shellfish to vaccines the Macron regime has missed no opportunity to put the boot into Britain. In fact, Parly was having a ‘pop’ at the Germans for failing to follow through on their 2017 commitment to support the planned Franco-German-led Future Combat Air System or FCAS which, much like the F-35, is intended not only to serve as a NextGen fighter, but as the command hub for a whole host of ‘intelligent’ drones that would act as ‘loyal wingmen’. The plan is to have the first prototypes of this Next Generation Weapon System (NGWS) flying by 2025, but full deployment is not expected until 2040 and beyond. The Germans are having cold feet. First, they will probably need to replace their Eurofighter Typhoons earlier than 2040. Second, they are baulking at the cost of what some in Berlin see as a form of German state subsidy for the French defence industry.
Plus ça change…?
It would be easy to dismiss such frictions as little more than ‘plus ça change, but they go deeper and the implications for the Alliance are profound. Indeed, implicit in the debate over European strategic autonomy that took place during the defence ministerial is an Alliance that is fast dividing into an Atlanticsphere and a Eurosphere, and a Eurosphere that is fast collapsing into a struggle between France’s strategic culture and Germany’s complete lack of it due to its profound unease at undertaking combat operations. Indeed, one senior French parliamentarian has even suggested to the Germans it would be easier for the French to work with the British! Zut alors!
Two other critical factors were missing in the defence ministers’ debate. First, the cost to Europeans of maintaining interoperability with the high-end US future force by 2030 and beyond, upon which the true credibility of NATO’s defence and deterrence rests. Second, the vital importance for NATO of Britain, France and Germany working closely together to realise the high-level transatlantic defence cohesion of tomorrow.
Army of none?
So, what is needed to reset the British-French-German defence strategic relationship? Two things – realism and vision. First, London-Paris and Berlin must start a real and pressing discussion about the looming impact of future tech on tomorrow's European battlespace. Second, why Europe’s two future advanced defence tech programmes, such as the Franco-German-Spanish FCAS and the British-Italian-Swedish Tempest-FCAS, are looking to deploy manned systems post-2040, when most other peer competitors will be looking to deploy AI-enabled/AI drone swarms etc. One only has to read the latest report of the US National Security Commission on AI (NSCAI) and its chair, Robert O. Work, or Army of None: Autonomous Weapons and the Future of War by Paul Scharre to grasp the pace of development of so-called Autonomous Warfare Systems (AWS). Third, the real place of cyber, space and information in NATO’s future deterrent posture. Fourth, how best for Europeans to defend against the systematic AI-driven exploitation of Allied vulnerabilities within the hybrid-cyber-hyper war continuum.
There needs to be a much better understanding over why Europeans spend their respective defence budgets so poorly, the lack of a strategic culture that leads to such choices, and the exaggerated influence of defence-industrial parochialism. Europeans also need to accept that the ability of the US to continue to defend Europe will rest increasingly on Europeans, due to the changing nature of threat the US faces and the cost of US domestic renewal. Third, a much better European understanding is needed of the cost of maintaining critical interoperability with the high-end US future force. Third, the form and cost of ‘European strategic autonomy’, the ‘independent’ European security architecture it would entail, and the military capabilities and capacity that would be needed to underpin it? After all, ‘autonomy’ is a function of power, not words.
There is another issue. In an attempt to ‘renovate’ NATO after the bruising Trump years some Americans are trying to change the mood music by suggesting that because Europeans spend four times more than Russia on defence things are really not that bad. Frankly, it is irrelevant if Europeans spend four time more if they also spend ten times worse. The true test of European defence credibility will be military power purchasing parity not nominal defence expenditure. Indeed, the reason Europeans must spend more is precisely because such expenditure is the cost of Europe’s defence divisions.
Tempest in a tea-cup or a complete FCAS?
Which brings me back to FCAS and Tempest-FCAS. Or, to put it another way, why on Earth are their two FCAS programmes in Europe? FCAS and Tempest-FCAS should be merged but in the insane world of European defence competing national egos, defence industrial interests and differing specifications always trump (excuse the pun) logic. There is also the hideous problem of the 80-20 rule which compounds the insanity. All involved can normally agree on 80% of the solution, but it is the remaining 20% which kills co-operation.
Paradoxically, both the future solution and the future problems of both FCAS and Tempest-FCAS can be found in the F-35 Lightning 2, which is currently deploying in various forms with several European forces. The F-35 is going through exactly the same teething troubles as history teaches us will afflict Tempest-FCAS and FCAS. First, because F-35 was the world’s first truly 5G platform it involves incredibly complicated technology much of which is still only working to point. Second, in spite of being in-service for five years the plane is still very much in development. Third, costs have exploded as a consequence leading the commander of the United States Air Force, General Brown to call for a ‘5G minus’ solution by which F-35 would operate alongside cheaper platforms (although Brown rejects upgrading the F-16). However, in spite of all of the above the simple fact is that F-35 IS in service. Moreover, F-35 affords pilots vital advantages over anything else flying or soon to fly in European air forces: situational awareness, the ability to penetrate advanced air defences and electronic warfare packages that offer intelligent counter-measures. Critically, the aircraft is also at the beginning of a life-cycle that will see this flying hard drive upgraded exponentially over the planned 26,000 hours each aircraft will fly.
So, here’s a novel idea. Why not simply merge FCAS and Tempest-FCAS, compromise on some aspects of ‘spec’; recognise that even then the costs will be far higher than the prime contractors suggest (as will development and production), because they always are; share the costs more widely, recognise that no air force from past European experience is going to get anything that even smells a bit 6G until 2045 at the earliest; and run a joint development programme with the Americans that looks at an unmanned alternative. One other thing; in the interim Europeans should buy F-35 (with offsets thrown in) to increase the production run and lower the costs of production, maintenance and in-life servicing.
Will that happen? Probably, in the end, but only after an awful lot of mutual recrimination and only after European governments are forced to confront the real cost of both FCAS and Tempest-FCAS in their post-COVID reality. However, before any of that can be agreed Britain, France and Germany will also have to again rediscover they are friends and allies. That would be nice.
Britain, France and Germany need a strategic reset and fast!