Julian Moxon/PARIS

SEVEN YEARS AFTER the fall of the Berlin Wall, France has carried out its most far-reaching defence review since the end of the Second World War.

The Dassault Aviation Rafale fighter, the Eurocopter Tiger attack helicopter and NH Industries NH 90 medium-lift helicopter have been retained in the budget plans, although all three appear to have suffered production delays or reductions in numbers to be purchased. The Future Large Aircraft (FLA) is the only apparent large project to be dropped.

The changes laid out by President Jacques Chirac on 23 February in Une Defense Nouvelle cover the period 1997-2015, and will, if fully implemented, fundamentally change the way in which France structures its weapons-procurement programmes.

France wants to avoid the problems it faced during the Gulf War, when it discovered that its troops were ill-equipped for the kind of rapid, well-armed deployment which the war demanded, while the air force was unable to transport men to the battlefield with sufficient speed.

According to French defence minister Charles Millon, defence programmes will now be subject, to far tougher scrutiny before they see the light of day, and will be selected more with a view to meeting the needs posed by a European defence force than to satisfy mainly French requirements.

"Splendid isolation is no longer workable," he says. France's defence industry will thus no longer be able to rely automatically on government backing for programmes to satisfy national defence policy. Instead, it will have to forge alliances, first with French and then with other European companies, if it is to survive.

Une Defense Nouvelle spells out France's intention of creating a "new army", based on a force of 434,000 volunteers instead of 577,360 conscripts, the retention of modernised air- and sea-based nuclear deterrents (but retiring the land-based component), and continued modernisation of army, air force and navy weapons.

In the new five-year defence plan, the equipment budget has been reduced by 18% over the period 1997-2002, saving the Government Fr104 billion ($20.5 billion) a year over the previous administration's 1995-2000 budget. This foresaw, a Fr624 billion equipment expenditure for the period, which has now been reduced to Fr516 billion.

Total defence spending will now amount to Fr185 billion a year (1995 francs), equivalent to the outlay for 1995 (Fr189.6 billion), but less than the original plan, and only slightly inferior to the 1996 budget. In real terms, this means it will slip by around 1% each year.

The armed forces will take some solace from having at least obtained a stable five-year budget, with Chirac's promise that he will "...personally ensure that the five-year plan is respected", reflecting cynicism about the fate of several recent plans.

On 26 February, Millon explained to industry chiefs the Government's long-term defence strategy up to 2015. He made clear the intention to pursue multi-year procurement programmes, again aiming for stability in place of uncertainty.

The reductions in equipment expenditure would have been far worse had not the Government made such large cuts in armed forces personnel. Most programmes will therefore remain more or less intact, although significant delays in production start-up for some weapons have been confirmed.


The future for the Fr200 billion Rafale programme is now virtually certain, although it has long been criticised by some in the Government as too expensive. Speculation in Paris is that the money was kept flowing as a sweetener for the forced merger between Dassault and Aerospatiale demanded by Chirac (Flight International, 28 February - 5 March).

Delivery of the first Rafales (for the navy) has been delayed by around 30 months, until the end of 2000. The numbers to be purchased remain unclear, but some sources indicate that the original figure of 86 aircraft may be reduced to 60. The air force will now receive 300 aircraft, instead of the original 320, and deliveries will not begin until 2004/5 - three and a half years later than originally planned.

By far the biggest surprise in Une Defense Nouvelle is the absence of funding for France's share in development of the pan-European FLA programme. France is the second largest FLA partner, with a planned 60-aircraft purchase, and has been consistently its most aggressive proponent.

The about-turn was completely unforeseen and, although France has not ruled out a return to the 300-aircraft, six-nation programme, there is now the once-unthinkable possibility that it will purchase "off-the-shelf" FLAs or Lockheed Martin Hercules C-130Js to satisfy its medium-range transport requirements. It also raises the prospect that some of its erstwhile European FLA partners may now head for a joint venture with Lockheed Martin to build a C-141 Starlifter replacement for around 2010.

Millon has tried to soften the blow to France's former partners in the programme by saying that the Government wants to "...enter into negotiations with the national and industrial partners to look for a European solution suitable for France". He adds that the Government hopes that the forthcoming restructuring of the French and European aerospace industries "...will allow a solution [for the FLA] that is less onerous than that which was originally planned".

Leaving FLA development is expected to save France around Fr6 billion up to the year 2002. There is as yet little indication on how Millon will reconcile the decision with Chirac's desire for a transport fleet capable of rapidly transporting 30,000 troops "...anywhere in the world where the situation demands".

While Millon left no doubt about the desire to continue funding its share of the Tiger attack helicopter and NH 90 transport helicopter, the size of the eventual purchase has been thrown into doubt. In its vision of the armed forces in 2015, the number of helicopters for the army has been reduced from 340, to 180. Funding for development, however, is maintained so that the Tiger, is still expected to be approved for full production this year, and the NH 90 in 1988.

Eurocopter France says that it is "heartened" by the decision to go ahead with both programmes after some six years of uncertainty. "The main thing is to get production going", it says, adding that under the new scheme, the planned annual production of Tigers and NH 90s would not be very different from that of the Aerospatiale Puma. Clearly, however, Eurocopter will be under considerable pressure to make up the numbers by winning export orders where it can.

The quantity of each helicopter to be purchased by the army remains unclear, as does the effect of a lower production off-take on the production programme share. At present, France and Germany are developing the Tiger on the basis of a joint requirement for 427 machines, with France taking 215. Eurocopter France says that there is "no question" of the Tiger production split changing because of the decision.

France, Germany, Italy and the Netherlands are developing the NH 90, with production of the originally planned 726 aircraft due to begin in 1998. France, which has a 41.6% stake in the programme, was due to take 160 army versions of the NH 90.

This may now be severely reduced, and will make an impact on the discussions now beginning between the four partners on production. There are even uncertainties about France's continued commitment to the NH 90, with Millon linking this in his meeting with industry chiefs on 26 February to a "significant reduction in the costs of industrialisation and series production".

Millon has announced that a new submarine-based strategic nuclear missile, the M51, a revised version of the original, cancelled, M5, will be developed to succeed the M45 - good news for prime contractor Aerospatiale.

Also benefiting Aerospatiale is the decision to go ahead with the improved, longer-range version of the ASMP air-launched nuclear missile, replacing the cancelled ASLP, to be carried by the Dassault Rafale and Mirage 2000N nuclear strike aircraft.

Reaction from industry to Une Defense Nouvelle has so far been muted. "It will take us a while to digest what has happened. This is a revolution, and it is impossible to say now how the industry will be affected," says one industry source. Much will depend on the future of the Government's new industrial strategy, based around the privatisation of Thomson and the merger of Aerospatiale and Dassault.

Chirac's desire is to strengthen what he calls the two "great poles" of the French aerospace industry, aeronautics and electronics, in which he says France has "world-class" abilities which must be preserved. There are complications to solving the problems posed by the Thomson and Dassault/Aerospatiale initiatives, but he says that the Government will pursue the initiatives with "firm resolve".

The objectives for the Dassault-Aerospatiale link are, he says, to enable the merged result to "..pursue its development in the highly competitive civil and military markets, to compensate for the inevitable decline in Government orders". The ex-president of Aerospatiale, Henri Martre, has thrown his weight behind the tie-up, saying that "...people must work together to ensure that France remains in the front line of aerospace manufacturers".

In carrying out what in the USA is called a "bottom-up" review of the defence aerospace industry, the Government has boldly gone where no other in recent years, has dared to tread.

The danger is that France has left the restructure too late to meet the challenges posed by the increasingly competitive US, Asian and even European aerospace industries. While there is now little doubt that the modernised weapons, which are now in development will survive, the shape of the industry that will build them remains unknown.

Source: Flight International