UK Should Seek Closer Defense Ties With Europe, Airbus Official Says

Credit: Airbus Defense & Space

LONDON—Airbus Defense and Space CEO Dirk Hoke has called on Britain to look for closer defense cooperation with Europe after Brexit.

In a virtual lecture to the London-based Royal Aeronautical Society on June 16, Hoke also reiterated his call for the two new European future combat aircraft programs—the UK-led Tempest and the Franco-German-Spanish Future Combat Air System (FCAS)—to be merged. He argued that the European market is too small for two competing systems. 

Hoke also said that with pressures on defense budgets likely to emerge in the coming months as a result of the novel coronavirus pandemic, “we definitely need to have a stronger focus on European defense procurement and defense strategy in order to avoid repetition, achieve economies of scale and not undermine the sovereignty of Europe.” 

European programs such as the EuroMALE remote piloted air system project, FCAS, Tempest and A400M should benefit from investment from European governments because they are “strong foundations toward European defense strategy,” Hoke said. He also noted that such “strong programs” can help accelerate the recovery phase after the COVID-19 crisis. Because supply chains often support both commercial and defense projects, such investments would support commercial and defense aerospace industries together, he suggested.

COVID-19 represents the biggest challenge that Airbus has ever faced, Hoke said, and out of the health crisis “we are heading for a huge economic crisis.”

He fears that governments may take the easy option and look to defense to make cuts in public spending. Hoke also noted efforts in France and Germany to prop up the aerospace and defense industry. He cited France’s €15 billion ($16.8 billion) PlanAero and Germany’s forthcoming decision to invest in upgrading Eurofighter radars, announced June 17. There are also plans to purchase an additional batch of aircraft through the Quadriga program. 

Airbus would remain fully committed to the UK despite Brexit, Hoke said. But he is concerned about an apparent stalemate in negotiations between the European Union and the British government, and the possibility that could lead to a no-deal scenario at year’s end when the Brexit transition period ends. Such a scenario could impact the movement of goods between the UK and Europe and the mobility of Airbus employees.

“For us, the question of what Brexit will look like is more important than ever. This is of course is more important with COVID-19 and the economic crisis we face,” Hoke said. “We still hope agreements can be found, especially on defense, space and security as we see the cooperation between UK and Europe as absolutely vital.”

“FCAS and Tempest are crucial to Europe’s military and technology edge,” Hoke told the audience. But he said Europe could not afford to repeat past mistakes, noting Europe’s parallel development of the Eurofighter, Gripen and Rafale. He also suggested that parallel projects could result in lost skills that could be gone for years or decades, making them difficult to recover.

“The market is too small. This would be a bad solution for the European Union and the UK,” Hoke said. “It would be of great benefit post-Brexit … to merge these programs.” He suggested it would be a “vital foundation for long-term fruitful cooperation on defense security and space.”

Hoke’s request is likely to fall on deaf ears. British politicians have previously said they believe there is room for two combat aircraft programs in Europe, and that Europe’s approach does not fit with the objectives of the UK’s own Combat Air Strategy. The UK is also trying to look beyond just Europe for partners on the program, including countries such as Japan.

Tony Osborne

Based in London, Tony covers European defense programs. Prior to joining Aviation Week in November 2012, Tony was at Shephard Media Group where he was deputy editor for Rotorhub and Defence Helicopter magazines.