Can the modular design of programs solve the problem of arms exports between Paris and Berlin?

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After President Macron, it’s the chancellor’s turn Merkel to express support for the concept of a European army, in a speech delivered to the European Parliament on November 13.

If it calls for the creation of a European army "complementary to NATO", and its own decision-making body, it also emphasizes a necessary agreement concerning arms exports at the level of equipment built in cooperation.

As we know, this problem appears like a sword of Damocles on the various Franco-German programs, such as the FCAS, or the MGCS, to the point that it is identified as a critical subject by many actors in these programs. It must be said that the French and German approaches are not difficult to reconcile, but structurally opposed. Indeed, where France favors reasons of state and the necessary dimension of exports to maintain a high-level defense industry, the German position is above all dictated by its public opinion, much more sensitive to this type of dilemma, than the French.

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Furthermore, relations between the German federal state and the defense industries are very different from those in France. For the German authorities, the Defense industry is a strategic industry as long as it remains profitable. If it is no longer there, the federal state will have no qualms about equipping itself with foreign equipment, particularly American. This particular relationship explains the German delays regarding the choice of the aircraft which will replace the Tornados at the end of their life, as well as regarding the exclusion of TKMS from the call for tenders concerning the new frigates of the German Navy. 

On the French side, on the contrary, strategic autonomy remains an absolute priority, and the government will only consider equipping itself with imported equipment in very rare exceptions, so as to maintain the capacities of this industry which employs 200.000 people on France, and generate nearly €10 billion per year in exports. Obviously, the points of friction between the two positions are inevitable, and can constitute a cause of failure for Franco-German programs, like many cooperation programs in Europe, the two positions being representative of those of many European countries.

The solution aimed at hoping that one of the two actors does not renounce their political line is, obviously, unrealistic. The Saudi episode of recent weeks is there to remind us of this. How, in these conditions, can we find a compromise acceptable to the protagonists?

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The solution could come not from a political agreement, but from a technological approach. Indeed, today, the majority of Defense programs are made up of a set of systems, brought together and connected in a single weapon system. While it is natural for the final weapon system to be very similar for all participating countries, in order to benefit as much as possible from the series effect, there is no obligation to offer the same system for export.

Thus, programs like FCAS or MGCS could be broken down into modules, divided into 3 subcategories: 

  • “core” modules: all the modules essential to the operation of the non-lethal and non-strategic weapons system. This typically concerns, in the case of the FCAS, the structure of the aircraft, its flight controls, its engine.
  • Exportable tactical modules, namely the elements of the weapons system on which all stakeholders undertake not to veto any form
  • Critical tactical modules, regarding which at least one actor could prohibit export, whatever their reasons.

When a disagreement regarding exports occurs, all players would be required to respect their commitments in terms of core and exportable modules. On the other hand, it would be the responsibility of those favorable to export to offer alternative equipment for critical modules. Obviously, it would be prohibited to propose non-standard solutions when no problem linked to exports has been identified. Likewise, penalty clauses should be integrated into the agreement between states if, for one reason or another, one of the players refuses to respect its commitments in terms of core and exportable modules.

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This approach would not only make it possible to effectively frame the hypotheses linked to the export of modern weapons systems, but also to identify the positioning of the different actors with regard to exports, so as to identify the actors opposed to them. both in terms of communication and in commercial or legal matters. Enough to put into perspective the impossibility of the Franco-German or European partnership put forward by some. 

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