France and Germany are already exploring fighter options that could omit Britain amid job cuts at BAE and as Brxit looms
UK faces battle to keep fighter-jet top slot
From the First World War vintage Sopwith Camel through the famous Spitfire to the Harrier jump jet, Britain has been a leading player in warplane production almost since the advent of aviation.
But with stuttering sales of the latest Eurofighter Typhoon model forcing job cuts at UK-based BAE Systems, Europe’s biggest defence company, and the upheaval of Brexit straining defence pacts, that heritage may count for little.
France and Germany are already exploring fighter options that could omit the UK, their partner in past collaborations including the Jaguar and Tornado.
“Things are fluid to say the least,” said Douglas Barrie, a military-aerospace specialist at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London. “Countries are trying to work out what they want from a next-generation fighter, which is confusing enough, but throw in the strain on relations from Brexit and there’s at least a risk that the UK will be excluded.”
The situation has become more acute as governments move toward combining the region’s three current offerings - the Eurofighter made by BAE, Airbus' German and Spanish arms and Italy’s Leonardo, together with the French Rafale and the Gripen from Sweden’s Saab - into a single programme to bring down costs and enhance cooperation.
As a key player in Eurofighter, BAE had seemed to be the obvious leader of an enlarged consortium, especially since it had already worked with France’s Dassault Aviation - the maker of the Rafale - on the Taranis drone, seen as a blueprint for a new breed of unmanned warplane. Since last year’s EU referendum, though, the apparent inevitability of that position is in doubt.
The level of European disquiet became clear in June, when Airbus warned that while a single jet was indeed likely to be developed to satisfy future needs, Britain’s role was not guaranteed. Fernando Alonso, its head of military aircraft, said Brexit made the future “difficult to see” and might mean that the next fighter would be “more continental”.
Then a month later the French president Emmanuel Macron and the German chancellor Angela Merkel announced a new warplane accord, with Britain conspicuously absent. The plan, which calls for the countries to produce a road-map next year for joint development of an aircraft to replace existing fleets, paves the way for reintegrating France into Eurofighter after it quit the nascent programme in the mid-1980s to produce the rival Rafale. Mr Barrie said that at least two other nations may be looking at joining - with the UK not among them.
BAE pointed to its past history of partnerships and “world-leading capabilities” as indicating likely involvement in future programmes. At the same time, two senior managers last month told the House of Commons defence committee that the UK must work to preserve military and industrial links through the turmoil of Brexit.
Bob Keen, BAE’s head of government relations, highlighted the importance of future collaboration, particularly in Europe, while Chris Boardman, the managing director of the company’s military-aircraft business, told policymakers it was crucial to look beyond the Typhoon era - “and don’t be complacent”.
Harry Breach, an aerospace analyst at Raymond James in London, said that while he expects BAE to be brought into the Franco-German discussions, Britain should not underestimate the ability of Dassault - best known for its Mirage series of fighters - to act as an alternative prime contractor.
BAE’s strongest card may ultimately be the scale of Britain’s defence budget and military commitments, which mean the country would inevitably play a major role in funding a future combined programme, were it to be part of one.
The company itself has also eclipsed its partners in marketing the Eurofighter outside Europe, racking up 108 such sales, versus 28 for Leonardo and Airbus.
At the same time, a deal to supply Saudi Arabia with 50 or more Typhoons remains on hold.
To be sure, BAE has other irons in the fire. The company has established an alliance with Turkey to develop the nation’s first home-built fighter, the TFX. Powered by the same engines as the Typhoon, the plane would be guaranteed around 250 domestic orders and also target export sales.
More significantly, BAE is also the main partner on Lockheed Martin’s F-35 fighter, the world’s biggest warplane programme, with a work-share of 15 per cent from production of the rear fuselage and tail, as well as cutting-edge fuel, electronic-warfare, life-support and crew-escape systems.
Exclusion from European cooperation could push BAE further in the direction of the US, and even revive speculation about a trans-Atlantic merger. That might be good news for investors but it would spell the end of a century-long era during which the company and its forerunners have spearheaded fighter design.
“The risk is that they become a glorified supplier,” Mr Barrie said.