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European fighter jet project moves into next phase

Europe’s largest weapons programme took a big leap forward on Friday when Germany, France and Spain struck a deal on the next phase of their much-delayed project for a new combat aircraft.

The three nations have reached an industrial agreement to take the Future Combat Air System project forward after intense negotiations, Germany’s defence ministry announced on Friday.

It had also been agreed at the highest government level that a “co-operative approach on an equal footing” would be pursued in the project, the ministry added, noting that it was “under overall French responsibility”. 

“The political agreement on FCAS is a great step and — especially in these times — an important sign of the excellent Franco-German-Spanish co-operation,” Germany’s defence minister Christine Lambrecht said.

“It strengthens Europe’s military capabilities and secures important knowhow not only for our, but also for the European industry.”

The Elysée palace confirmed the German announcement, which it said followed “intense negotiations” that involved high-level political officials. The French presidency added: “It has been demonstrated once again that we can meet considerable challenges together.”

The agreement breaks the log jam that has held up the programme amid what had been protracted industrial wrangling over workshare and technology sharing between Airbus and Dassault Aviation, the two main industrial partners involved.

Recent tensions between Berlin and Paris over energy policy in the wake of the war in Ukraine had further complicated the situation.

The agreement paves the way for the start of the development of the demonstrator jet, which is estimated to cost about €3.8bn.

Launched by Berlin and Paris in 2017 — Spain joined in 2019 — the programme is seen as a critical building block for the region’s defence and security ambitions. Along with the FCAS programme, which France was supposed to lead, the countries also agreed to collaborate on a future tank project, dubbed the Main Ground Combat System, which Germany would lead.

Although industrial agreements were reached on six of the FCAS project’s seven pillars — spanning manned and unmanned aircraft, space communications and stealth technologies — divisions remained on the seventh pillar — the next-generation fighter jet itself.

Dassault has always stressed that it had to be the clear leader in the development of the aircraft. A deal on this phase was supposed to have been reached last year.

Airbus said the agreement “represents a big step forward for this European flagship defence programme”. 

It cautioned, however, that a “number of formal steps” still had to be taken in the respective countries “in order to allow a speedy contract signature which we will have to adhere to”. The company said it would provide further updates on the programme once the contract between industry and the three nations was ready for final signature.

Dassault declined to comment.

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