An Update on French Defense: November 2020

By Pierre Tran

Paris – France will exclude British companies from almost all competitions for defense and security contracts as Britain has left the European Union, with any problems to be handled with flexibility, said a parliamentary special report on the draft 2021 defense budget.

“With the effective entry into effect of Brexit, and unless the agreement on future relations between the European Union and the United Kingdom sets specific measures, British companies will be excluded from virtually all French public tenders for defense and security,” the armed forces ministry said June 9 in reply to a Dec. 3 written parliamentary question, the 370 page report said.

However, contracts previously awarded to British companies will continue to be honored, the ministry said. Under French law, the contract holder must respect national and European law even if the parent company were not governed by the European Court of Justice.

That approach was applied to non-European economic actors, the ministry said.

“Difficulties generated by the effective departure of the British will be treated on a case-by-case basis and with flexibility, if necessary with amendments,” the ministry said. That was intended to avoid any disruption to the supply of weapons, needed to boost the strength of the services, as sought by the president and the 2019-2025 military budget law.

It remained to be seen whether exclusion of British firms will apply to their French subsidiaries looking for new business, a defense specialist said. France had bought relatively little British equipment and had previously taken a pragmatic, case-by-case approach.

The French subsidiary of a British company, Babcock, won in 2017 a contract to supply 17 PC-21 aircraft to train French air force pilots under the F-Air-21 training program.

This year marked the 10th anniversary of the Lancaster House treaty, intended to foster close ties between Britain and France in joint military operations and arms programs.

Parliamentarian François Cornut-Gentille, who sits on the finance committee of the lower house National Assembly, drafted the report, published in October.

Brexit on the Channel, Britain Cut Off

Britain pulling out of an Anglo-French project for a Future Combat Air System was a “major failure,” and competition between a Franco-German FCAS and the British Tempest project have “slammed the brakes on the dynamic launched at Lancaster House,” the report said. Britain has partnered with Italy and Sweden on Tempest to build a new fighter jet.

Brexit, which enters fully into effect Dec. 31 2020, had added to the “institutional and political obstacles of the degraded landscape,” the report said.

Britain’s baling out of an FCAS project to build an unmanned combat air vehicle with France was seen as a casualty of the British 2016 referendum which opted for leaving the EU.

An alternative view came in the Nov. 2 joint statement from the French and British defense ministers, seeking to mark the significance of the Lancaster House treaty.

There was “good progress” on the joint concept phase for the Future Cruise/Anti-Ship Weapon (FC/ASW), a “flagship” project, the ministers said. The two nations will conduct respective national project scrutiny and approvals on the future missile over winter, with a decision on a joint assessment phase in 2021.

That missile will replace the Scalp/Storm Shadow missile for the French and British air forces, and Exocet and Harpoon weapons for the respective navies.

A production contract will be signed this month on the joint Maritime Mine Counter Measures (MMCM) program, with first capabilities to be delivered in 2022, the ministers said. Sea trials held this year showed the system’s capacity for hunting mines.

London asked for a contract signing for the mine hunting program to be postponed, as the UK was announcing the Integrated Review of Defense and Security in autumn, the report said.

France and Germany continued to work on future combat air technology and were considering the scope to work together in other areas ahead of the Anglo-French summit in 2021, the ministers said.

The Lancaster House treaty was intended to revive the cooperative spirit of the 1998 St Malo agreement, signed by the then French president, Jacques Chirac, and then British prime minister Tony Blair on board the HMS Birmingham destroyer.

Blair and Chirac had hoped to boost European defense, to correct a dependence on US  intervention in the Serbo-Croatian war in the Balkans, in the heart of Europe.

The UK prime minister, Boris Johnson, said Nov. 18 there would be an extra £16.5 billion in defence spending over the next four years, on top of the annual amount.

German Ties Tangled

There were problems in cooperation with Germany, with operational and industrial concerns, the report said.

President Emmanuel Macron pursues the big concept of European defense, with Germany as the key partner in the wake of the UK’s Brexit bid to boost national sovereignty.

“We are presently weakened by the British departure,” the joint chief of staff, Army gen. François Lecointre, told July 16 the National Assembly defense committee, the report said.

That made it indispensable for the German partner to promote that strategic culture, he said.

European defense called for operational engagement, not just industrial cooperation.

“Beyond industrial projects and the capability vision, we need to have an operational vision and a strategic vision,” he said.

“We do not agree with the Germans on their vision of the evolution of the European Union headquarters, which is one of the principle structures in European defense,” he said.

On a Franco-German squadron of 10 C-130J transport planes flown by French and German pilots from Evreux airbase, northern France, there were “major obstacles” on the best use of capability as there were distinct rules of engagement, and political and diplomatic differences, the report said.

Problems could be seen with the Franco-German army brigade.

For industry, there was need to agree a joint program timetable for the FCAS, as electoral timetables risked derailing the project, Dassault Aviation chief executive Eric Trappier told May 14 the  defense committee, the report said.

“What worries me more than COVID 19 is the sequence of events,” he said.

Time and energy had been needed to sign the phase 1A contract for a technology demonstrator, but there was risk later stages would be held up by German elections in 2021 — and the possible creation of a coalition — followed by French presidential and parliamentary elections in 2022.

“We cannot wait for 2022 to start work on the rest of the program,” he said.

“It is just not possible.”

France, Germany and Spain are partners on the FCAS project, which includes a next generation fighter.

A prototype of the fighter jet is due to fly in 2026.

Berlin and Paris signed Oct. 23 2019 an agreement on arms exports, but there was close scrutiny from the German parliament, the report said.

“Unlike the National Assembly, the Bundestag does not just settle for a late annual report on exports…” the report said.

Berlin and Paris pursue FCAS and a Main Ground Combat System, comprising tank and networked units, as the two main bilateral projects.

There is also a planned artillery unit, dubbed Common Indirect Fire System. Spain is a partner on FCAS.

Low Availability

The defense ministry declined to give information on the cost of retrofit on early models of the A400M Atlas to deliver a tactical capability and availability of the transport aircraft was “problematic,” the report said.

There was 24.5 percent availability of the 16-strong fleet of A400M at 31 Dec. 2019, the report said.

The payment schedule showed spending will rise sharply after 2023, with €3.6 billion earmarked for procurement of more than half the total 50-strong fleet after that year.

One A400M was due to be delivered in 2021.

There was availability of some 50 percent on the air force and navy Rafale, the report said.

The administration was focused on an export effort on the fighter jet, with 12 units to be taken from the air force to be sold to Greece, the report said.

There were also talks with Croatia for a prospective sale of 12 Rafales, also to be taken from the air force, leaving the service with a potential gap of 24 units.

The potential deal with Greece includes six new Rafales, making a total of 18 units.

Armed forces minister Florence Parly told Oct. 6 parliamentarians the administration would order 12 Rafale to replace those to go to Greece, and a further 28 units would be delivered 2022-2024, as planned under the multi-year budget law.

The 70-strong fleet of Mirage 2000 D fighter jets had an availability of 39.7 percent, which showed progress, the report said.

On helicopters, the Tiger attack helicopter had an availability of 30.3 percent, lower than the Puma/Super Puma’s 32.6 percent, Caracal’s 42.7 percent and Gazelle’s 45.6 percent.

The NH90 army version was available 41 percent, with the naval version at 24 percent.

The heavy financial cost on the NH90 called for a suitable availability, the report said, adding  “Today, that is not the case.”

The ministry has ordered an upgrade of 10 NH90 for the special forces.

The ministry told the rapporteur in April 2020 information would be withheld on availability of fixed wing aircraft and helicopters, cutting public information on availability of the A400M and Tiger, the report said.

The information, available since 2013, was subject to greater confidentiality, the ministry had said.

The ministry rescinded the clampdown in October, when the information was released.

That inconsistency extended to the availability of nuclear-powered attack submarines, with the information denied to parliamentary questions, but published in the annex of the official budget, said the report, adding, “Go figure.”

Funds authorized

Some €49.5 billion was authorized for commitment at 31 Dec. 2020, marking a remarkable amount which was not covered by funds for payment, the report said.

Those authorizations of today signalled the armed forces’ capabilities for the rest of the decade and would test their flexibility in response to threats as yet unknown or underestimated.

The ministry will authorize commitment of €318 million and payment of €1 million in 2021 for development in the missile air-sol tactique futur (MAST-F), a program for an air-to-ground weapon for the Tiger helicopter, the report said.

The Missile de Haut Trame (MHT) weapon has been selected, Parly said Nov. 13 on a visit to the MBDA factory in Bourges, central France. A contract is due to be signed with MBDA by the end of the year, allowing the MHT to replace Hellfire under the MAST-F program.

Some €700 million will be spent on development, with delivery of 500 MHT missiles  by 2028, AFP reported.

The authorities picked the French MHT weapon over the Lockheed Martin Joint Air-Ground Missile (JAGM) and Brimstone from the MBDA British unit.

The MHT weapon will be “ITAR-free,” to avoid the need for approval under the US International Traffic in Arms Regulations and boost export prospects.

The MHT is an adaptation of the MMP anti-tank missile for use by troops and armored vehicles.

On a planned European medium-altitude, long-endurance unmanned aerial vehicle, €650 million will be authorized next year, the report said. Negotiations are expected to lead to a contract signed by the end of this year, with a delivery due in 2028.

On the naval front, there will be €330 million of authorization for the planned next-generation aircraft carrier, the report said. The ministry had declined to give information requested to provide the overall context of acquisition of a second carrier, and the effect that would have on the navy.

The two Horizon air defense frigates have a “particularly worrying” availability of 50 percent, the report said. The bulk of authorization for the five FTI frigates was granted in 2017, with €2.38 billion voted, while €152 million of payment is due in 2021. The bulk of payment will fall in the next multiyear budget law.

A severe fire June 12 onboard the Perle nuclear-powered attack submarine showed “mistakes had been made,” the then navy chief of staff had told the defense committee, the report said. The Perle was under a full overhaul contract for the first time with Naval Group, making the company responsible for the service, the report said.

The decommissioning of the Saphir attack submarine last year was “particularly worrying,” as that left only five attack boats in service, the report said. The concern was compounded by the fire on the Perle, leaving only four boats on service.

A program to build a future heavy torpedo has been “particularly chaotic,” the report said. There is an order for 93 units to arm the attack submarines and nuclear ballistic missile boats.

Pandemic stress

COVID 19 earlier this year led to three to four months of “destabilization,” making it “extremely difficult” for industry to meet targets, Stéphane Mayer, chairman of GICAT, a  trade association for land systems, told May 14 the defense committee, the report said.

Mayer is also head of CIDEF, which represents GICAT, GICAN and GIFAS, with the latter two representing respectively naval and aerospace companies.

The head of the Direction Générale de l’Armement procurement office said April 29 amendments would be made to contracts to cancel penalties if deliveries were late due to the pandemic, the report said. Any delays would be made good by the end of 2021. Of the 128 Griffon multi-role armored vehicles due to be delivered this year, 80 percent would be shipped in 2020 and 20 percent delivered in 2021.

The rapporteur questioned whether the plan to make good delays in 2021 was realistic, as the  health crisis was persisting in the autumn, generating uncertainty and calling for great prudence.

The DGA is due to receive a public relations budget of €4.7 million for 2021, reflecting costs of the Paris airshow, the report said.

That amount was 50 percent more than the previous airshow in 2019.

Management of staff at the DGA led to 23 cases of personnel at psycho-social risk last year, comprising 17 personal cases and six collective situations, the report said. Psychologic help was engaged to deal with those cases.

The total DGA staff count last year was 10,054, a slight increase on 9,975 in 2019.

The DGA press office has seen a 60 percent cut in staff over the last 10 years, said an Oct. 21 parliamentary report by Claude de Ganay.

The 2020 budget for the DGA press office was authorized to commit €1.4 million for payment and €1.2 million for payment.