In detailing plans unveiled yesterday to cut nearly 6,000 jobs as part of the previously-announced consolidation of its Cassidian defence and Astrium space divisions, EADS chief executive Tom Enders this morning called time on an “unwieldy” industrial structure that has left the businesses – which are only now emerging from decades of European national government control – unable to compete on cost when bidding for work outside European home markets.

The Eurofighter programme will be a particular target for restructuring, and could be in for more job cuts as early as 2016, if export sales are not secured to keep assembly lines active beyond the current 2017 schedule. Cassidian chief executive Bernhard Gerwert, who will head up Airbus Defence and Space when the two are formally joined sometime next year, says he is “optimistic” for two of the five export sales opportunities being contested by Eurofighter. However, he says the current programme structure – which maintains final assembly lines in Germany, Italy, Spain and the UK – reflects aircraft demand in the four nations that make up the programme consortium. If any of those countries end procurement, he says, “we are free to cut”.

Gerwert adds that EADS is in discussions with partner BAE Systems about “restructuring” the Eurofighter consortium.

The scale of EADS’s competitiveness gap was revealed by Gerwert’s remark that SpaceX – the California start-up leading efforts to re-establish US space launch capabilities – has just launched a satellite to geosynchronous orbit with its new Falcon 9 rocket “that is 30% cheaper than [Astrium’s] Ariane [5]”. With that sort of cost disadvantage, he says, much of the Astrium business is simply not profitable.

Pressed on whether a cost gap that large could be cut by flexible labour practices, or whether it would be necessary to invest in a new generation of product, Enders points to the Ariane 6. This all-new launcher, in development for service from about 2020, is largely about slashing launch costs. However, even a new-generation product like Ariane 6, he says, “cannot work” in this “unwieldy industrial structure”.

And, he adds, if management is unable to reduce its cost base and “realise synergies” between Astrium and Cassidian, “this will not be the last restructuring”.

Enders, fielding press questions by conference call, stresses that the plan he revealed to union leaders yesterday was about changing working practices as much as reducing headcount. Drawing a parallel with the Power8 restructuring plan he led at Airbus from 2007 – when the civil airliners division was reeling from the euro-dollar exchange rate and the “disastrous” start to the A380 programme – Enders said the move to join Astrium and Cassidian into a new Airbus Defence and Space division was about “competitiveness”. Airbus surpassed its €2.5 billion ($3.4 billion) cost savings goal with Power8, which involved 8,000 job cuts.

The programme being discussed with unions now calls for 5,800 jobs to be cut, including 1,300 by allowing temporary contracts to lapse. Some 2,000 jobs will go in Germany, 1,260 in France, 557 in Spain, 450 in the UK and 180 in other countries. Up to 1,500 people may be absorbed by Airbus and Eurocopter over the coming three years, but Enders expects the total to be more like 800-1,000. Negotiations with the unions will be ongoing for several months, so it will be well into 2014 before details – including of compulsory layoffs – will be known.

In Germany, a major site at Unterschleissheim near Munich will close, with its functions moved to Ottobrunn. The Paris corporate office at Montmorency will be sold and its functions moved to Suresnes, where the corporate technical office is already based.

EADS has been in flux for more than a year, since a 2012 proposal to merge with BAE Systems. That deal would have created the world’s biggest aerospace company and vastly expanded EADS’s defence business, but it was ultimately quashed by the German government.

Although investors had doubts about the plan, it had won at least qualified support from the UK government and from France, which with Germany had at that time blocking control of EADS. French and German stakes in the company totalled 45% – a legacy of EADS’s creation more than a decade ago by the merger of French and German national aerospace champions that had been operating increasingly closely throughout the evolution of Airbus.

That legacy left the company burdened by a dual management structure that demanded co-holders – one French and one German – of all top jobs, as well as a doubling up of headquarters. Political meddling also left its mark, particularly in cumbersome workshare dealing that saw programmes divided up between the nations, including Spain and, early on, the UK – although BAE eventually sold its share of EADS.

The dual management structure was ended following what was widely perceived, by the mid-2000s, to be its inability to cope with the sort of problems that Power8 was designed to tackle. But the shareholding structure, which still gave Paris and Berlin much influence over management, became a target for Enders after Berlin blocked his BAE merger plan.

Late in 2012 the parties agreed to a new governance plan that has, for all intents and purposes, turned EADS into a “normal” company – with the majority of shares now freely traded on stock markets.

The extent of the shift in power from government shareholders to EADS management was made clear when Enders noted that, had his 2012 bid to merge EADS with BAE Systems gone ahead, there would be fewer job cuts today. One key feature of that merger plan – which was ultimately quashed by the German government – was a guarantee to Berlin that it would cost no German jobs.

Said Enders today: “That was then.”