Innovation drives competitiveness in today’s defense industry, and Research & Technology underpin this drive. This trend is especially clear under current conditions, with the growth of military spending around the world and the advent of what may well be disruptive new technologies. Furthermore, the arms manufacturing process is only amortized over the long term, and it is sometimes difficult to break even given the increasing share of sales generated in export markets, under strict government control. Safran, for example, although it invests heavily in defense R&T – like all of its partners and counterparts – must still be able to count on state support to address the current research challenges facing the defense industry.
French defense procurement agency DGA (Direction générale de l’armement) has therefore decided to boost its basic research budget from 730 million euros to 1 billion euros, from now to 2022. Meanwhile, in 2021 the European Union will be launching the European Defense Fund, with a 13 billion euro budget.
It is well worth noting this growing awareness of the situation. But it will only generate all desired effects if two conditions are met.
First, if European countries meet the objective for NATO nations of spending 2% of GDP on defense, including 20% on new equipment and research. At a NATO summit this year, they reiterated this commitment. Governments shouldn’t ignore their defense obligations under the pretext that European budgets are growing. To foster a virtuous circle in Europe between orders and basic research, we must simultaneously strike a fair balance between the freedom to choose one’s weapons, and support for an industrial base. Without wishing to be protectionist, we can still regret that member-states are often tempted – for political, rather than technical reasons – to choose non-European solutions, primarily American of course.
The second condition that must be met for this increased funding to generate results, is that these funds should target requirements that have been clearly defined by all stakeholders. Electronic and photonic components, vehicle autonomy, the digital battlefield, new materials… the potential field of research is vast. And the future combat aircraft should be at the top of this list. As recent operations have proven, the air arm is the keystone of defense. European powers, led by France, should authorize major research efforts if they want to stay at the leading edge. Our discussions with Germany on the future combat air system, comprising fighters, drones and command systems, are therefore decisive. When the time is ripe, Safran will be ready to contribute to this essential challenge. While waiting for objectives to converge at the European level, the national facet remains critical. For the moment, only France, along with the United States and Russia, is capable of building a complete combat aircraft from nose to tail.
The engine is obviously a key part of any combat aircraft, which is in fact built around its propulsion system. Furthermore, the engine accounts for a significant share of total cost. Safran’s M88, which powers the Rafale, has built up a solid reputation for performance, availability and reliability, but its technology is still 20 to 30 years old – and it takes a long time to give birth to a new aircraft engine. Furthermore, the engine has to precede the development of a new aircraft, so we have to accelerate our research on future aircraft propulsion systems without further ado. In other words, to ensure the future of the Rafale and the French-German future air combat system, we should immediately start developing engine upgrades and associated electrical power generation systems. This implies boosting our investment in basic technology building blocks and launching demonstrator programs, which play a critical role in guaranteeing the best-in-class integration skills that any complete engine manufacturer has to offer.
At a moment when new players are entering the field alongside legacy competitors, we should all feel the need for urgent action. It’s only by investing massively in R&T, starting now and in particular to lay the groundwork for future combat aircraft, that we can ensure the long-term defense of our country and our allies. As we look to the future, I believe that we can be confident. Building on a rich tradition of recognized skills and expertise, plus the unwavering support of public authorities, the French and European defense industries will know how to develop the weapons needed to protect our sovereignty for many years to come.