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Failure to launch? The implications of the FC/ASW Missile Program for post-Brexit defense cooperation

The ongoing negotiations over a comprehensive trade agreement have sidelined discussion of Anglo-EU security and defense cooperation, and the future relationship between the EU and Britain is uncertain. Considering mounting tensions with China and Russia as well as the security implications of COVID-19, the evident neglect of security and defense is concerning.

Today’s EuroBlog entry – the first in a series of posts dedicated to the potential impact of Brexit on security and defense cooperation – hunts for clues among current defense projects. Though the projects are not directly under the purview of the Common Security and Defense Policy (CSDP) or Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO), they impact available capabilities for CSDP missions and are broadly symbolic of European defense cooperation. In addition, I will consider how momentum from these projects may encourage disengagement.

The Future Cruise/Anti-Ship Weapon (FC/ASW) Missile Program

The FC/ASW Missile Program is an interesting test case for Brexit’s impact on European defense. On the one hand, the two leading military powers in Europe – France and the UK – jointly fund the program. On the other, MBDA Missile Systems, a multinational, European venture involving the UK, France, Italy, Spain and Germany, oversees the project.

The impetus for the program reflects a blend of shared needs and bilateral commitments that predate Brexit. Practically speaking, the FC/ASW will replace the air-launched Scalp/Storm Shadow as well as the air-and-ship-launched Exocet and Harpoon anti-ship missiles used by the French and British navies. FC/ASW is especially important to the development of parallel capabilities for the deployment of its two aircraft carriers.

FC/ASW also came about thanks to the Materials and Components for Missiles, Innovation and Technology Partnership (MCM ITP) program, which grew out of the Lancaster House Treaty signed by France and Britain in 2010. The Lancaster House Treaty calls for “continuing and reinforcing the work on industrial and armament cooperation” and the “development of defence technological and industrial bases”, alongside other provisions involving Anglo-French cooperation in security and defense. The Treaty alludes to cooperation through related mechanisms in the European Union, but the agreement and its subsequent initiatives are bilateral in nature and outside the scope of EU-based defense and security programming.

Despite this distinction, there is an important historical link between Anglo-French defense cooperation and the CSDP. The St. Malo Declaration (1998), signed by Tony Blair and Jacques Chirac, called for developing the EU’s “capacity for autonomous action, backed up by credible military forces”. Blair and Chirac intended Anglo-French cooperation to be a means toward this end. We should view the FC/ASW against this backdrop as well.

A pivotal juncture for FC/ASW (and Anglo-French cooperation)

Phase one of FC/ASW, valued at €100 million, launched in 2017. In March 2019, MBDA confirmed successful completion of its ‘Key Review’, paving the way for in-depth studies of the “most promising concepts”. At the time, British and French officials welcomed this news and anticipated moving at some point this year to phase two involving further concept study, refinement and “road maps for the maturing of technologies”. Yet, as of August, neither Paris nor London have tendered contracts for phase two.

It is reasonable to assume that Brexit and COVID-19 have impacted the program’s prospects, but it is difficult to isolate the principal cause of uncertainty. Theoretically, Brexit should not have a direct effect on the commitment to FC/ASW. In fact, a joint review of the FC/ASW program by the French National Assembly and the UK House of Commons in late 2018 stipulated that, “Finally, as the United Kingdom prepares to leave the European Union, the FC/ASW programme offers an opportunity to demonstrate the growing strength of our bilateral defence cooperation.” The Johnson government, however, has not commented on the FC/ASW program since Brexit negotiations began in February. Furthermore, we have little insight into Johnson’s views on the importance of bilateral cooperation with France to his post-Brexit planning.

It is also unclear whether COVID-19 has compromised funding and slowed movement to phase two. The UK’s investment in upgrading its naval capabilities leads one to expect that there is will to maintain FC/ASW based upon need alone; yet Britain has not undertaken or, at least, publicized an assessment of the impact of COVID-19 on the program or resources going to the Ministry of Defense.

What we do know is the FC/ASW is at a pivotal juncture, and the expected deployment of FC/ASW in 2030 is in jeopardy.

Is FC/ASW part of a broader trend?

The FC/ASW program does not exist in a vacuum, and there is reason to doubt its future in light of the unexpected end to the joint Anglo-French unmanned combat air vehicle (UCAV) project. In 2014, France and the UK invested £120m in a two-year study spearheaded by BAE Systems and Dassault. The proposed Future Air Combat System would bring together work on UCAVs previously undertaken by each firm. BAE Systems and Dassault began concept work, but the project never made it to the planned second phase in 2017. Reasons for the change of heart remain obscure. According to Dassault’s chief, the impetus came from the British.

Some have cited Brexit as a contributing factor to the demise of the joint UCAV project, but there is reason to doubt this theory due to timing. Yes, the Brexit referendum intervened between the launch of the project and phase two, but the practical implications of Brexit were far from clear when the will to pursue the joint project evidently evaporated in early 2018.

If anything, Brexit may have indirectly contributed to a shift in political will within the May government that also impacted defense-related R&D. UCAV was simply an early casualty. Britain’s commitment to the Tempest fighter and LANCA unmanned drone, each initiated in 2018, is additional evidence of an apparent strategy to increasingly rely upon national firms for development and production.

The collapse of the joint UCAV project and the launch of the Tempest/LANCA programs overlap the FC/ASW program. If Britain opts out of phase two of FC/ASW, then there may be a sort of self-imposed Brexit underway in the European defense industry.

Necessity supersedes planning

Even if the United Kingdom does not intend to fully disengage from FC/ASW, necessity may force a change of direction. With respect to the FC/ASW program, the Royal Navy appears to be in a bit of a bind. The Harpoon system is scheduled to phase out in 2023 – seven years prior to the anticipated roll-out of FC/ASW. This will require a stop-gap procurement of some sort, perhaps extending Harpoon. It is possible, then, that British planners will opt to develop its own program along the lines of Tempest and LANCA, or opt for an available alternative. Either scenario would render the FC/ASW redundant.

Economic fallout from Brexit and COVID-19 could also increase the attractiveness of home-grown or cheaper systems due to the rising cost of inputs, limits on high-skilled labor mobility and financial strain. Meanwhile, in the near term, COVID-19 relief will influence budget decisions and encroach upon the pool of available funds for the Ministry of Defense. This says nothing about COVID-19’s impact on high-level dialogues, focusing attention on the ongoing trade negotiations and limiting opportunities for face-to-face diplomacy.

Ultimately, Britain must find a way to maintain her commitment to weapons systems that fit her most expensive investments under far-from-ideal circumstances. This does not bode well for either the FC/ASW or bilateral cooperation with France.

(Note: my next post will further investigate how the UK’s aircraft carrier program could lock-in outcomes to the detriment of close ties with the continent.)

Continental Drift?

In February, French President Macron delivered a keynote speech on European defense and deterrence. In the speech, Macron described a pressing need to grow Europe’s capacity for autonomous action, and positioned France in the vanguard of these efforts.

These comments came on the heels of an open letter to the British people, in which Macron exhorted Boris Johnson to “to draw on history to boldly build new, ambitious projects” and “deepen our defence, security and intelligence cooperation” in line with the Lancaster House Agreement.

Apparently, Macron did not then believe enhancing the EU’s security and defense capabilities contradicted his plea to Johnson. Unfortunately, we cannot – and should not – assume that Johnson shares Macron’s sentiments. The dominant ‘taking control’ and ‘global Britain’ narratives portend a fading bilateral relationship with France, as Macron’s former Europe minister recently lamented. And while this does not preclude Anglo-EU security and defense cooperation after Brexit, it certainly undermines it.

Even if there an inkling of a will in the Johnson government for pursuing joint defense projects with France, the converging storms of COVID-19 and Brexit threaten to jeopardize collaboration as planners react by scaling back and/or charting divergent paths to meet strategic imperatives. For this reason, we should keep a close eye on the FC/ASW program. If it survives, then there may yet be room for optimism.

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“Failure to launch?” is part one in a series, “Hunting for Clues on Brexit and the Future of Security and Defense Cooperation with Europe”.



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