By Andrea Shalal
BERLIN (Reuters) – Airbus <AIR.PA> and France’s Dassault Aviation <AVMD.PA> will shortly submit an unsolicited proposal for initial conceptual work on a next-generation fighter jet to German and French officials, according to sources familiar with the matter.
The two companies agreed in principle in April to work together on an ambitious Franco-German programme to design a new warplane, but are anxious to get some early funding so they can start work on new technologies required for the multi-billion project – with a goal of fielding a new aircraft around 2040.
Germany and France signed a memorandum of understanding about the project in April, but progress has been halting amid disputes between the governments about future exports, and among industry about how to divvy up work on a system to integrate the new jet with drones and other weapons.
One source familiar with the matter said the two companies could submit their proposal by the end of the year or early next year, paving the way for the first contract awards next year.
One French military official told the International Fighter conference in Berlin this week that the two governments hoped to conclude an initial contract in January.
Peter Harster, senior executive with MTU Aero Engines <MTXGn.DE>, said the study contract was needed, along with a medium-term budget plan, to help set a realistic timetable and key requirements to ensure the new jet would be ready by 2040.
Harster also called for a separate contract for work on an engine for the new jet to enable optimal flexibility and give the customers direct control over the propulsion system.
Bruno Fichefeux, head of future combat air systems at Airbus, told the conference he expected conceptual work on the programme to begin soon, “bilaterally or with Spain.”
A Spanish official told the conference his country was in discussions with both the Dassault-Airbus team, and a separate project being led by Britain’s BAE Systems <BAES.L> to secure a role on one of the projects. A French military official said the two projects could also be merged at a future date.
Douglas Barrie, senior fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, said government and industry ties would likely shift again, as in the 1970s and 1980s during work that ultimately led to the Eurofighter Typhoon and Dassault’s Rafale.
“We’re at the start of that process again now. And I don’t think it will take a decade to shake out, but it will take some time,” he said. “I think shifts are inevitable.”
Senior executives from Airbus and other companies discussed the next generation fighter with German Defence Minister Ursula von der Leyen at a meeting hosted last week by the German Aerospace Industries Association (BDLI), the sources said.
BDLI declined to comment on the meeting. No comment was immediately available from the defence ministry.
(Reporting by Andrea Shalal; Editing by Mark Potter)