In the absence of having any next-generation combat aircraft currently under development, Europe faces the risk of strategic downgrading, according to the France-based air and space academy. Over the past few weeks, a task force comprising former high-level military officials and retired industry executives has submitted recommendations to politicians and military policy makers of the European Union's 28 member-states in an attempt to sustain key operational capabilities needed to preserve top-level defense sovereignty for Europe.

Such recommendations are being received with great interest, academy officials say, but no action is in sight as yet. Europe's efforts are scattered, the industry being unable to speak with a single voice since it failed to launch a unified program in mid-1985. Despite increasingly tight defense budgets, three competing combat aircraft programs are in production: the four-country Eurofighter Typhoon, French Rafale and Swedish Gripen. But no initiative is being planned for successors, despite statements about the urgent need to reconcile operational requirements, coordinate funding and establish a realistic work-sharing agreement.

In contrast with the contradictory demands that prevailed in the 1980s, European defense officials and industry executives acknowledge that no single player still can pretend to remain a self-proclaimed independent prime contractor. Even fiercely independent Dassault Aviation, which largely relies on economic patriotism, no longer expects to obtain national funding for Rafale's successor, tentatively expected to enter service beyond 2040. Warns Gen. (ret.) Jean-Georges Brevot, former head of the French air force's air operations and a member of the academy's working group: “If we do nothing, in 20 years from now, this [European combat aircraft] industry will be dead.” Adds Gen. Denis Mercier, the French air force's chief of staff: “Combat aviation is the indispensable tool required for the affirmation of our sovereignty.” Academy officials reinforce such a claim, asserting that emerging countries, pursuing technological autonomy, in the next 10-15 years will produce and export advanced fighters, such as Russia's T-50 and China's J-20 and J-31.

The framework is not unexpected: Decades are required to devise operational requirements, submit requests for proposals to manufacturers, develop and flight-test aircraft, and launch production. This time-consuming process takes so long it is not compatible with politicians' shorter-term views. Moreover, European nations are participating in the U.S. F-35 Joint Strike Fighter's funding, scattering research and development budgets. According to the academy, European partners are jointly participating in the F-35's funding up to €8 billion ($10.8 billion.)

Says Brevot: “We are at a crossroads; the situation is worrying; we need a tighter Europe. Currently we are not following the right track.” He sees the European defense industry rapidly approaching a point of no-return and feels action is urgently needed. Before developing a plan, a unified vision of air combat should be devised, including a European vision of future theaters of operations, an assignment that could be given to the European Defense Agency (EDA), as a prerequisite to a joint requirement. Ten years ago, several European air forces issued a joint request for proposals for a next-generation airlifter, an initiative resulting in the development of the Airbus Military A400M, suggesting that military needs can successfully lead to common specifications.

To make any envisioned cross-border program simpler, academy members suggest the supply chain could be made shorter. Member states and industrial trade groups would be put on equal footing under the joint leadership of EDA and the Aerospace and Defense Industries Association of Europe, following a roadmap covering technology and funding, defining common standards and aiming at maximum interoperability.

In preparation for a full-fledged program, the academy recommends the development of technology demonstrators, a long-standing request of manufacturers facing their design offices' decreasing workloads.

Now European political leaders, encouraged by chiefs of staff and industry executives, are expected to act. In 1985, unwillingness to compromise led to failure, and governments still pay a high price for the inability to unify their efforts. Few export contracts have been signed for European fighters (none for the French Rafale), while U.S.-made combat aircraft, which benefit from longer production runs and lower fly-away list prices, have been procured by multiple foreign air forces. The academy does not want this history to be repeated.