Spain has joined France and Germany in a project to build the next generation of fighter jets.
A mock-up of the new warplane was unveiled in front of French President Emmanuel Macron at the Paris Air Show on Monday. Defence ministers from all three countries signed a framework agreement launching their trilateral cooperation.
It comes as European nations look to develop their own military hardware in an increasingly uncertain world. The commitment of the US to NATO has been questioned in the light of President Trump’s attacks, while the UK is leaving the EU and going its own way in developing a separate fighter jet.
'A step forward' in European military cooperation
The new European project will complement and eventually replace the Eurofighter Typhoon jet which was developed in the 1980s and 1990s, as well as France's Rafale planes.
Part of the Future Combat Air System (FCAS), the fighter jet will include a range of associated weapons such as drones and cruise missiles as part of an “Air Combat Cloud”. It will be built by Dassault Aviation and Airbus.
After the ceremony in Le Bourget, French Defence Minister, Florence Parly said: “In 2040, the French Armed Forces will be equipped with a combat aircraft, built between Europeans, to face the fights of tomorrow. This is historical and that’s just the beginning.”
German Defence Minister Ursula von der Leyen hailed the project as a “great step forward” for European defence cooperation. “The fact that Spain joins today underlines this,” she said.
Spain’s defence minister Margarita Robles signed a text formalising Madrid’s participation.
Details concerning the development of the European warplane still have to be worked out. The model unveiled at Le Bourget had no features other than its overall shape.
It is hoped that a prototype will take to the air by 2026, with the jet eventually replacing the Eurofighter and France’s Rafale jets around 2040. The Eurofighter Typhoon was also 20 years in the making: developed in the early 1980s, it became fully operational in 2003.
Europe's crowded military airspace
France and Britain had reportedly considered working together on the project, but Brexit cast doubt on the level of possible cooperation. In July 2018 the UK launched its own Tempest fighter jet plan, announcing plans to invest £2 billion (€2.25 billion).
The French-German-Spanish project is expected to put pressure on the British-led initiative.
Unveiled at last year’s Farnborough Air Show, the British project has attracted interest from Sweden. Swedish aerospace company Saab has been developing a new version of its Gripen E fighter aircraft.
Meanwhile, Switzerland is said to be evaluating replacements for its Boeing and Northrop planes, looking at Eurofighters as well as American Lockheed Martin F-35 jets.
Greece and Poland have also expressed interest in the Lockheed model.
The project has produced tensions between France and Germany since it was agreed between President Macron and Chancellor Angela Merkel in July 2017. There have been concerns from some quarters in Germany that France – the lead partner – will get too much of a slice of the cake.
Spain’s involvement means that Spanish companies will also get some of the work, but details have not yet been sorted out.
Airbus has reportedly been lobbying politicians in the German Bundestag to convince them that the billions of euros required to develop and build the new plane will be money well spent.
The plan is also said to have exposed differing views between Paris and Berlin over arms exports. France is keen for jointly-developed weapons systems to be exported to third countries, while Germany’s policy is more restrictive.