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This article is part of the Europe’s strategic impotence Special Report.
Europe’s NATO members have a GDP that’s almost as large as that of the United States, but that doesn’t translate into comparable military heft.
A big reason is that the alliance’s 29 European members often scatter their defense purchases on rival programs that dissipate their effectiveness.
The European Union has been aware of the problem for years, but industrial rivalries and different military priorities have made it very difficult to coordinate efforts on jointly producing weapons. While that may not have mattered much in the comfortable post-Cold War world of low defense spending and distant threats, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has changed the calculus.
Although there have been joint defense projects before — like the Eurofighter developed in the 1990s by the U.K., Germany, France, Italy and Spain — there’s now an effort to do more together.
“Defence cooperation coupled with increased spending is the only way to ensure Europe has capable and ready armed forces, able to respond to any crisis,” the EU’s Coordinated Annual Review on Defence noted in November.
Two of the most prominent common projects are the European Patrol Corvette (EPC), which aims to develop a vessel for European navies, and the Future Air Combat System (FCAS), a Franco-German led attempt to build the next-generation fighter jet — both projects that predate last year’s Ukraine war.
Here’s a look at how they’re doing.
European Patrol Corvette
The European Patrol Corvette aims to avoid needless duplication by European navies, which rely on different vessels with different systems. “There’s no efficiency in this,” said Davide Cucino, vice president and head of EU affairs of the Italian shipbuilder Fincantieri.
“The idea was to finally conceive a ship that can be accepted by a multitude of navies,” he said, adding that the project is eyeing a flexible, “modular” design that can also be fitted with new systems “without the need of designing a new platform.”
The venture is led by Fincantieri together with France’s Naval Group, and their joint venture Naviris, as well as Spain’s Navantia. The team effort includes the navies of Italy, France, Spain, and Greece, with smaller contributions from Denmark and Norway.
Different navies have different missions, so they need ships to be equipped differently. That’s also true for the EPC members, as Italy and Greece are looking for combat ships to use in the Mediterranean, while France and Spain are eyeing vessels to patrol remote waters.
Last year, a broader team of 40 companies in 12 countries was awarded €60 million from the European Defence Fund to develop the European Patrol Corvette — a contract they’re expected to sign in the coming weeks. They’ll apply for €154.5 million more in EDF funding to build a prototype in the fall.
It’s the first time the shipyards are working on a program financed by both the Commission and by national defense ministries, “and this means that there are a lot of coordination hurdles that we face for the first time,” said Cucino.
Previous naval projects — with no EU involvement — have proved that to be a challenge. The FREMM frigates, developed by Fincantieri and Naval Group, are in use by Italy and France as well as Morocco and Egypt, with vessels on order from Indonesia and the U.S.
But the French and Italian requirements for the ships were so different that the two navies ended up building “very different ships,” said Elio Calcagno, a researcher for Istituto Affari Internazionali’s defense program.
Another Franco-Italian collaboration on the Horizon class destroyer did yield nearly identical ships, but there were some national tensions during its development; the United Kingdom, involved at the start, dropped out to do its own thing, said Calcagno.
Future Air Combat Systems
The Future Air Combat System is Europe’s biggest defense project: developing a jet fighter to replace the Eurofighter Typhoon used by Germany and other European countries, as well as France’s Rafale and the U.S. F/A-18 Hornet used by Spain.
The project was signed off in 2017 with great fanfare by then-German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron, who described the partnership as a “deep revolution” in European defense cooperation. Spain joined in 2019.
But those high-flown words haven’t prevented friction between France’s Dassault and Germany’s Airbus Defence and Space over who leads on the project and sharing technology.
Things got so bad that Dassault — which is leading on the development of a prototype — reportedly threatened to walk out.
“The Germans refuse the French proposal to provide leadership, given the initial political agreement and the balances on other issues. It seems to me that a political battle needs to be waged,” Dassault CEO Eric Trappier told the French Senate in 2021.
Killing the scheme would be “completely against all the commitments and statements about strengthening European defense cooperation,” said Pierre Haroche, lecturer of international security at Queen Mary University in London. “I don’t think it will fail completely because it’s so crucial politically. But the risk is that the rescue comes so late that eventually there’s a huge cost.”
The fighter is supposed to be operational by 2040, but there’s a “genuine risk,” that the scheme is delayed so long that it ends up failing in its mission of providing a replacement to the current generation of fighters, said Haroche.
“Air forces cannot afford to have a gap,” said Alessandro Marrone, another researcher at the Istituto Affari Internazionali. He pointed to the parallel Global Combat Air Program by the U.K., Italy and Japan to develop a multi-role sixth-generation stealth fighter, and said whichever comes first “may enjoy an advantage.”
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