by Herman Michiel (*)
23 June 2021
You can’t be blamed if the acronym FCAS doesn’t mean anything to you. FCAS stands for ‘Future Combat Air System’, and is a French-German-Spanish project to develop a ‘sixth generation’ fighter plane, as a successor of the ‘fifth generation’. Among the latter is the American F35, actually in the course of being delivered to a number of EU member states (Belgium, Denmark, Italy, The Netherlands, Poland), but as military strategists are foresighted, they already set their eyes on the sixth generation.
All states considering themselves as a ‘power’ are busy with the development of a sixth generation fighter plane: the USA, Russia, China, India, and in Europe there are even two competing initiatives: the French-German-Spanish FCAS, and the British Tempest, in which also Sweden and Italy participate.
Sixth generation fighter jets
In 2017, shortly after Macron became president of France, there was an agreement between Paris and Berlin to develop a sixth-generation fighter jet, commonly referred to as FCAS. In 2019, Madrid also joined in; this was under the socialist Sánchez government with Josep Borrell (now European commissioner for foreign affairs) as foreign minister. The three countries, with significant military industries, each appointed a prime contractor: Dassault for France, Airbus for Germany and Indra for Spain. A prototype should be ready by 2025-2027, and the aircraft should be on the market from 2040 on. At the 2019 Le Bourget aviation fair, a model of the future dream of the German-French axis was shown under the admiring gaze of Emmanuel Macron and the then German defence minister Ursula von der Leyen – now president of the European Commission.
What is meant by ‘sixth generation’ is, among other things, that the jet is escorted by a swarm of unmanned armed drones, supported by satellite communication and artificial intelligence, and carries weapons of the future (such as laser cannons, hypersonic projectiles), and so on. With a partner like France, the only EU member state to have nuclear weapons, it goes without saying that FCAS can take on board nuclear bombs. The price tag for the development of FCAS varies widely, ranging from a minimum of 100 billion € according to more official sources, to 300 billion according to more critical reports, and even 500 billion according to a business newspaper like Handelsblatt. Currently, the military companies involved are already receiving several billion euros in taxpayers money to carry out preliminary studies. For the arms industry, the future does not look bad, with figures of $500 billion circulating on the market for future fighter jets, while governments shoulder the development costs.
In the spring of 2021, quarrels between the industrial FCAS partners became public, and some media were worried that the project might fall through. There were disputes over intellectual property rights, as Dassault and Airbus are in fact competitors, and there were also disagreements over the division of labour between German, French and Spanish companies, to the point where Dassault even threatened to go alone. With relief, the French Senate was able to announce at the beginning of April that there was an agreement between Dassault and Airbus to construct a demonstration model.
Another concern for the corporate and government arms lobby is the uncertainty about the political situation in Berlin after the Bundestag elections of 26 September. Would the fine plans that Macron had forged with his friends in the CDU and SPD still hold up if Greens also get involved? How Germany’s Greens could spell the end for the Franco-German fighter jet, was the title of a contribution to the European Council on Foreign Relations, a leading pro-EU think tank on European foreign and security policy.
But this concern is not much more than an admonishing finger from established European powers towards (possible) newcomers, because in recent months the German Greens have done their utmost best to convince the powers that be not to fear green adventures. Their candidate Chancellor Annalena Baerbock introduced herself with slogans such as “more expenditure for our defence”, “more investments so that rifles would shoot and night vision devices would work”, “more European commitment to defence”. And then there was chairwoman Ueberschär of the Böll Stiftung, the German green think-tank, who co-signed a declaration at the beginning of the year stating e.g. that “Germany must continue to be included in NATO nuclear-sharing arrangements.(…) The U.S. nuclear shield is essential to all non-nuclear NATO countries in Europe. It should exist for as long as nuclear weapons exist and the nuclear threat looms. Nuclear sharing is the expression of a remarkable degree of solidarity within the alliance.” .
Of course, not all members or voters of Bündnis 90/Die Grünen agree with this militaristic discourse. In the public gallery, it is therefore necessary to pretend that the Grünen are also a bit alternative. “We just don’t automatically agree”, said Tobias Lindner on FCAS. Lindner is an elected member of the Bundestag and a Green defence specialist. He wants certainty about the share of German industry in FCAS, and what the situation is with intellectual property rights. He also expressed concern that the sale of the aircraft to third countries could be under the looser French terms, rather than the ‘strict’ German ones. Perhaps one of Herr Lindner’s better concerns, but he does not seem to realise that a rig that is not constructed cannot fall into the wrong hands. All in all, militaristic Europe’s concern that German Greens might be a spanner in the works is a sham.
Mélenchon: shame of the European left
For those who define ‘left’ broadly and include greens and social democrats, it is in any case a great disappointment to find that in the EU’s largest member state, there is no opposition from either the social democratic or the green side to a money-consuming, peace-threatening project. Even worse, however, is the fact that a party to the left of this, which is a member of the left-wing group in the European Parliament (GUE/NGL), takes an even more vexatious position. We are talking about La France Insoumise and its leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon. On his blog, L’Ère du Peuple (‘The Age of the People’ !), he writes under the title “Dassault is right to say ‘nein’ that FCAS is une sottise (a foolishness), not because it is a money-grubbing peace-threatening project, but with the following ‘argument’:
“We are the only country, and we should remain the only country, capable of building an aircraft of this type from start to finish. For reasons I do not understand, Macron has decided that this project too should be carried out by France together with Germany. We have no need of that. We created the Rafale [Dassault French fighter], and we did it alone, and it is the best fighter in the world. We have the technology, the engineers, the workers to make such a plane. So we are doing a favour for the Germans. But the Germans always want more. In particular, the Chief of Staff of the German army has demanded access to all of Dassault Aviation’s patents. Dassault has refused, and they are absolutely right. Germany never has such demands for the weapons they buy from the United States.”
This is an appalling statement, dripping with nationalism, chauvinism and militarism, with the utmost disdain for even the very first notions of internationalism. At the beginning of 2018, Mélenchon proposed to exclude SYRIZA from the European parliamentary Left, because of the right-wing turn that party had taken. I agreed with this demand, because to call a referendum showing that a majority is against accepting the Troika demands, only to meet those demands the next day, is unacceptable for a left-wing party. Today, however, it is unacceptable for a party that claims to be left-wing to support militaristic projects and, in addition, to defend its own military industry in an extremely chauvinistic manner.
On this issue at least, the German Die Linke should not hide away in shame, and the party – apart from a number of opportunists – remains radically opposed to the militarisation of Europe.
FCAS, a European project?
Strictly speaking, FCAS is not an EU project. It is (for the time being) an initiative of three member states, outside the European institutions. That is the option which the leading governments in the EU may always take if their plans do not immediately find sufficient support among the other member states. It was the ‘trick’ to get the European Fiscal Compact (the ‘TSCG’) launched, it could be the trick to introduce FCAS within the EU machinery.
Anyway, most commentators speak about a ‘European fighter plane’, a document of the European Parliament speaks about “the largest and most important defence project in the EU. It would have the potential to enable the Union to compete with Russia in the air and to decrease its military dependence on the US”. Anyone drawing a hard line between ’the EU’ and ’the EU member states’ is missing an essential aspect of what is called the European project. It are indeed the same politicians (let’s stick to Merkel and Macron here) who represent the “EU Franco-German axis” at one time and who conduct bilateral negotiations between two states on a military project at the other. In 2019, at Le Bourget, Ursula von der Leyen admired the model of the future fighter jet as Germany’s defence minister, today she is president of the European Commission. When Spain joined the Franco-German initiative in 2019, Josep Borrell was Spain’s foreign minister, today he holds that position for the entire EU…
That is in terms of personnel (which of course includes the extensive network of diplomatic cooperation, contacts between administrations and so on). And in terms of money? Officially, no EU money flows to FCAS. But the EU (through its Defence Agency) does subsidise the development of military drones, which, as mentioned, are part of the FCAS concept. The EU also subsidises research related to artificial intelligence, another explicit aspect of FCAS. Experts will of course be able to find other loopholes, but perhaps the front door will also open. It is called PESCO .(another example of the ’European trick’). In principle, European military decisions require unanimity among the now 27 member states, which proves impossible to achieve in practice. So the EU created the possibility to do this with a smaller number of member states, yet under the Brussels umbrella. Thus PESCO, Permanent Structured Cooperation, came into being. (Such a ‘coalition of the willing’ would, in principle, also have been possible for business taxation, but apparently that was never as urgent as military cooperation…)
For now, FCAS is outside PESCO, but will it stay that way? Özlem Demirel, MEP for Die Linke, thinks that the PESCO gate could be opened for FCAS and that a decision could be made this year. There is no shortage of such pleas in the militaristic lobby. For example, there is Sven Biscop, professor of International Relations at Ghent University and a well-known NATO ideologue. He devised a nice little plan:
“Projects to design the next generation of the central platforms for Europe’s armed forces should be brought to PESCO also: the next main battle tank, frigate, fighter aircraft, missile system, etc. The requirements could be decided upon in a core group of just a few states. In a next step, the project could be opened to all PESCO states. These would accept not to have a say on the requirements, which cannot be negotiated at 25, nor is that necessary – one can safely assume, for example, that the specifications for a combat aircraft that suit France and Germany would suit Belgium as well. In return for their commitment to procure the platform, their relevant industries would be included in the consortium that would design and produce it.
“Don’t miss the train”
The frivolity with which politicians decide on these kinds of billion-dollar projects is also evident from the Belgian attitude to them. In 2018, the Belgian government, especially the Flemish nationalist N-VA Minister of Defence Steven Vandeput, decided not to buy a French-German plane but the American F-35 as a successor to the F-16. The first F-35s will only be delivered in 2023 or later to Belgium, but it was said the gear had a ‘holding time’ expiring only in 2065. Nevertheless, the same N-VA is now making a plea not to “miss the train on the development of the new fighter planes”.
If you want to evaluate a party, you should perhaps look at which train it does not want to miss. The train of the new fighter planes? Or of the closure of nuclear power plants, the transition to renewable energy, the vaccination of all planet dwellers and the introduction of a fair tax system?
(*) Herman Michiel is the editor of the Flemish-Dutch website Ander Europa.