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Combat aircraft or helicopters, Europe must choose

The Eurofighter Typhoon. Credit: UK Royal Air Force

(BRUSSELS2) While the main budgetary gaps are concentrated in tactical and strategic transport, the various European countries continue to invest massively in combat aviation, for quantities which seem disproportionate over a limited geographical territory. There are nearly 3.000 combat aircraft in European armies, including 1500 fully operational. And the planned renewal plans indicate that European armies will not easily give up this tool. Result while the “mobility-projection” function is designed as a priority for modern forces, it is today the poor relation…

The crisis offers an opportunity to make an aggiornamento in aeronautics and to carry out a reorganization both of combat aviation and to give more priorities to projection forces (transport planes, helicopters), which is more in phase with NATO's future strategic concept (1) as well as with the EU's objectives, the so-called Petersberg missions as expanded by the Lisbon Treaty.

In this period of budgetary scarcity, European states do not have the possibility of developing both oversized fighter aviation and filling the gaps in force projection (transport planes, helicopters). We will have to choose.

Restructuring European combat aviation

Dexcessive purchasing plans

The Netherlands had thus planned to buy 85 JSF (lower figure), Denmark 48 JSF (balanced decision); France 286 Rafale; Germany 180 Eurofigther; Italy 121 Eurofighter and 130 JSF; the United Kingdom 160 Eurofighter and 138 JSF; Spain 87 Eurofighter; Austria 15 Eurofighter! This was before the crisis…

Today is the time for a re-discussion of equipment, in a certain disorder. The Netherlands plans to reduce the number of JSF orders; Italy has reduced its Eurofighter order to 96 aircraft, the United Kingdom plans to do the same (48 Eurofighters and 78 JSF fewer according to some projections), Germany plans 37 fewer Eurofighters, Norway has postponed the delivery of its JSF in 2018 (instead of 2016) and Denmark is trying its hand (JSF or F18) Etc… In short, it's a rout.

Why not joint management, at least partial?

Would it not be appropriate to take advantage of the crisis to overhaul the organization of combat aviation in Europe to have, at least, part of the equipment managed jointly, like the EATC for the fleet transport ? If the 4 countries participating in the EATC – which participate in a similar air zone – put in place a common management system, we will have a more than adequately sized workforce of combat aircraft. There are already two European territories – Iceland and the Baltic countries – which rely on other NATO countries for air defense.

Redirect part of the funding

Helicopters still remain a bit of a poor relation in terms of equipment, even though they are of recognized utility in modern operations and the cost is incommensurate with that of a fighter plane. However, for a Rafale or a JSF, we can buy, at a minimum, 3-4 NH90 helicopters, 5 Super-Puma EC225 helicopters and 7-8 Mi-17 helicopters (2). The simple, minimal reduction in a fighter aircraft program therefore makes it possible to quickly make up for the European delay in this area.

Why helicopters?

This is one of the obvious shortcomings of European armies. And the already significant needs can still grow in the future. In all recent missions, we have noted this need, whether it concerns offensive actions (Afghanistan), interposition operations (Chad), including more “civilian” missions such as military training. Somalis (EUTM Somalia) or observation in Georgia, not to mention humanitarian missions (Haiti, etc.). In any case, it is necessary to have a Medevac function.

The helicopter is also a vital asset in terms of rescue operations at sea or in the mountains, rescue and search, evacuation of nationals in danger, and even extinguishing forest fires. In short, it is a civil-military tool par excellence, entirely in line with the European missions, known as Petersberg, as expanded by the Lisbon Treaty, as well as the civil-military function that NATO is seeking in its new concept. strategic.

…and why not Mi17s?

The new European NH90 helicopter is slowly arriving in the armies (Finnish, Dutch, French, etc.). But it's not enough to catch up. In the meantime, we could very well design palliative solutions such as using the good old Mi17 or its more modern attack and transport version Mi24. Of course it's Russian equipment. But several European armies are already equipped with them (standard equipment for Eastern European and Balkan armies). And there would be a certain logic to equipping oneself with this equipment, robust, proven… and for which technological update kits exist in European companies (British, Czech…).

(1) Read: The “total” approach according to Rasmussen. And NATO-EU cooperation…

(2) The price varies depending on the equipment and the purchase volume, as well as the calculation basis (with or without development costs)

(Nicolas Gros-Verheyde)

Nicolas Gros Verheyde

Chief editor of the B2 site. Graduated in European law from the University of Paris I Pantheon Sorbonne and listener to the 65th session of the IHEDN (Institut des Hautes Etudes de la Défense Nationale. Journalist since 1989, founded B2 - Bruxelles2 in 2008. EU/NATO correspondent in Brussels for Sud-Ouest (previously West-France and France-Soir).

4 thoughts on “Combat aircraft or helicopters, Europe must choose"

  • Why not MI 17s?
    – because the modernization kit for an MI 17 (4 to 7 M€ per machine) is almost worth the price of certain new machines, in any case an economic calculation which takes account of the depreciation on often old cells shows that the operation is often uninteresting
    – because these devices are not certifiable to European standards, i.e. a government which flies its men in a Mi8/17 has no recourse in the event of an accident and is attacked by the families
    – because the Mi17 is the subject of intense lobbying which benefits Anglo-Canadian brokers in particular, who have managed to take 70% of the juicy market (in 100-airnes of M€!) from the outsourcing of the UN and succeeded in ousting 100% of helicopters of European origin. In turn, it is European industry that may be marginalized in the future.
    Morality: without wanting to do basic protectionism, a little European preference would benefit both the security of our soldiers in operations and our European wallets.

  • By the way, should we remember the average age of the European aircraft fleet? Germany and others still field F-4s designed 50 years ago, Spain Mirage F-1s designed 40 years ago, Benelux and Norwegian F-16s date from a program from 30 years ago.

    And the austerity measures taken hastily for a few months risk making prestigious air forces like the Royal Air Force second-tier weapons with fewer combat planes than Algeria...

    Already, in theory, Libya with its Antonovs has more air transport capacity than France.

  • A combat aircraft is about twenty of the most advanced technological programs, which determine, to a large extent, the industrial innovation of entire sectors of the European economy. Abandoning its construction would be detrimental to many civilian sectors. Americans have understood this for a long time.
    Your reasoning is too “short” in industrial and economic terms.
    It is not “either the helicopters” (financial problem) or the combat planes (problem of innovation and research).
    Pooling or sharing research in European programs by asking our manufacturers to cooperate and helping them financially to do so would be much smarter. Pool our helicopter fleets as well. In this last sector Eurocopter is our European champion, world number one. So Europe can go there….

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