If Europe has found a way of sorting out its fragmented space, guided weapons, commercial aircraft and even helicopter industries with a path being trodden for avionics, radar and other defence systems, the fighter road is far from clear.

It is a worrying sign, given that air power will be the cornerstone of NATO's expeditionary force doctrine well until the end of the first half of the next century and a key driver of future aerospace industry developments at all levels.

And exciting though the new super-merger breakthroughs of Aerospatiale Matra/Dasa and British Aerospace/Marconi Electronic Systems are, the lack of any pronouncements for a unified fighter company in the current consolidation round is the strongest indicator yet that Europe may still not be quite ready to tackle the most complex merger of all.

For Europe to seize the opportunity to transcend the ever-divisive world of funding-for-national workshare arrangements and see a way to integrate the fighter businesses of Italy's Alenia, British Aerospace, Spain's CASA, Germany's Dasa, France's Dassault Aviation and Sweden's Saab to create a single strong, efficient, European fighter producer will be the truest test of Europe's resolve to harness the industrial means to underpin a future common defence and security identity.

There are presently no plans for a next generation pan-European fighter which could provide the glue for such a merger and without that there will arguably be little urgency to do so.

The UK has already embarked on an ambitious Tornado long range strike aircraft replacement programme, called the Future Offensive Air System (FOAS), to complement its Eurofighter from around 2018. And France has yet to declare its intentions on a replacement for its Tornado equivalent, the Mirage 2000D/N strike aircraft. Likewise, Germany and Italy appear to be a long way from deciding how to replace their Tornados. Spain is even further from defining its needs for the next century.

Although France has not formalised its requirement for a Mirage 2000 successor, its defence ministry is at least working with the UK to fund a series of technology acquisition programmes that will develop capabilities applicable to the FOAS and, if necessary, a separate Mirage 2000 replacement. With this Anglo-French initiative, backed by invitations to cross-border partnerships to kick off research, the foundations for a pan-European fighter programme have at least been laid.

But the risk now is that Dassault may decide to reassert its fighter independence on the back of a resurgent Franco-German aerospace industry while BAe diverges along a transatlantic route through the Joint Strike Fighter and potentially other programmes.

But Dassault should keep in mind the French Government's frequent statements throughout the financial trials and tribulations of its Rafale programme that France will never build a fighter on its own again. BAe's decision to opt for an all-UK consolidation may have caused bitter upset among its European counterparts, but Europe should not allow emotion on the part of its industrialists to cloud judgement at a critical juncture in its fighter-building history. Nor should bad experiences on earlier collaborative aircraft ventures interfere with common sense and a realistic opportunity to drive forward the next stage in European aerospace.

There are already positive signs with seemingly strong tie-ups in airframe, engine and airborne radar technology acquisition for a potential Anglo-French joint project. It would be a shame if France and the UK cannot take the initiative and gather in other European players to create a cutting edge fighter specialist capable of dogfighting with any other manufacturer in the global sales arena.

With its two fighter houses increasingly likely to shrink to just one sometime after 2010, the USA is a model for the future of the industry. With the consolidation ball in play, those on the pitch should run with it before the opposition wins possession and scores in the European fighter players' goal.

Source: Flight International