By Rafael Loss, ECFR
The future of the FCAS fighter jet now likely lies with the German Greens. If they enter government this year, the end could be nigh for the Franco-German project.
Germany’s Greens like to think of themselves as their country’s most committed champions of Europe. They see in France their most important partner to further European integration and to advance the green and socially just transformation of the European Union. French President Emmanuel Macron’s vision for a sovereign Europe, too, is shared whole-heartedly by the Greens. Yet, it could be their role in the next German coalition government, which polls suggest as a likely outcome of the September election, that brings about the end for the Future Combat Air System, the Franco-German (and now also Spanish) defence-industrial prestige project.
From a Green perspective, FCAS already has two strikes against it: armed drones and nuclear weapons.
France and Germany first expressed their intent to collaborate in the development of a new European combat aircraft at a joint ministerial cabinet meeting in 2017. Subsequent declarations specified the military requirements that FCAS is to meet and the division of labour between the parties involved. Spain joined in 2019.
FCAS envisions a “system of systems”: a sixth-generation fighter jet that is accompanied by uninhabited drones and embedded in a larger combat cloud for seamless communication between the various platforms and other parts of the integrated armed forces across all domains. From 2040 onward, FCAS is supposed to replace and augment aircraft of older types in the French, German, and Spanish air forces and provide them with new networked capabilities to project air power and navigate an increasingly contested environment. So far, Berlin has committed roughly €110m to the project, just over 0.1 percent of the estimated total of €100 billion. The first really big chunks are due for approval soon.
But only four years in, FCAS is already struggling. Cultural and structural differences between France and Germany in their political and military procurement processes have resulted in frustration for both sides. One point of contention concerns the relative importance of the different pillars within the project as well as that of FCAS overall compared to the other projects France and Germany agreed to in 2017. Berlin worries that Paris’s lead on the aircraft could crowd out the other pillars of FCAS and the new joint battle tank project, which Germany spearheads. There have also been disagreements about the export regulations that would determine to whom the technologies that emerge from FCAS can be sold in the future, with Berlin favouring tighter restrictions than Paris.
While Germany’s Greens “agree in principle” that the next generation of military technologies should be co-developed with France to strengthen European sovereignty, they, too, clash with Paris on export restrictions, and have blasted the current German government for buckling under French pressure. More than regulations, however, machine autonomy and its nuclear role could lead the Greens to pull the plug on FCAS if they enter the next German government.
For the Greens, as for the Social Democrats (SPD), autonomous weapons are a big “no”. Both see today’s remotely piloted armed drones as only one step removed from tomorrow’s fully autonomous weapon systems. In December, the SPD, as part of the current coalition government, walked back its support for the Bundeswehr to receive armed drones, arguing that almost a decade of debating the pros and cons of such systems was still not enough to make a decision. The move puts the Greens in a bind: if they join the next government together with the Christian Democrats (CDU), who support the acquisition of armed drones, continued opposition to such systems could dent their image as a responsible political player, while acquiescence would hurt them with their pacifist voters. Either way, the SPD have passed the hot potato on to the Greens and can snipe at them from the side-lines.
This episode could foreshadow trouble for FCAS. Up to now, process and procedures were the bone of contention. As the project progresses, much more sensitive warfighting capabilities will come into focus. Drones are an integral part of FCAS, both as sensors and as weapons platforms with varying degrees of autonomy. As such they serve as force multipliers and “loyal wingmen” for the aircraft at the centre of FCAS.
To explore the ethical and legal challenges of autonomy as they relate to FCAS and provide guidance for the project, Airbus and Germany’s Fraunhofer Institute set up an expert panel. Coincidentally, Ellen Ueberschär, the co-president of the Green Party-associated Heinrich Böll Foundation, is one of the experts. She also recently penned an op-ed on transatlantic partnership, in which she called on Germany to recommit to NATO’s nuclear sharing arrangement, earning her a firestorm of criticism from prominent Green politicians. Though unrelated to FCAS, this episode points to their other big “no”: nuclear weapons.
FCAS has always had a nuclear role, at least implicitly. The next generation fighter is planned to replace France’s Rafale and Germany’s Tornado aircraft, both of which can carry nuclear weapons – French cruise missiles and US gravity bombs, respectively. For France, the transition from Rafale to FCAS will be seamless; Germany is currently looking for an interim solution to ensure its contribution to NATO nuclear sharing through the 2030s until the next generation fighter becomes available. If Germany dropped out of nuclear sharing in the meantime, as the Greens favour and the CDU fears, it would no longer need a new aircraft for this particular role. Still, contributing to and financing the development of a nuclear-capable system, even if Germany only wanted to make use of its non-nuclear parts, would be inconsistent, at least in spirit, with the newly effective Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. The Greens have just urged the current government to join this treaty.
As with drones, FCAS’s nuclear role will draw increasing attention and growing opposition. While some compartmentalisation, like the creation of two technology demonstrators – one French and one German – might relieve some of the pressure to abort the project, it would also add even more moving parts to an already complex system and increase development costs over time. Together with bureaucratic friction in the procurement process and the concerns over autonomy and nuclear weapons, rising costs could quickly erode political support for FCAS in Germany. The fact that autonomous weapon systems and nuclear deterrence represent not only technical details of this project, but central fault lines in the contemporary debate on European defence, only adds to the headache. If they end up in government, the Greens will have to approve several billion euros by 2025 to move FCAS forward – or vote it down.