by Nathan Gain and Christina Mackenzie
It will have taken France over a year to ratify the inter-governmental agreement signed on 24 September 2015 by France and the United Kingdom to rationalise the European missile sector. Britain notified on 23 February that it had completed the ratification procedure. But since the 29 September and the French Senate’s adoption of the text, three months after it was adopted by the National Assembly, the ratification is now complete.
That means that a significant step has been taken towards setting up the centres of excellence proposed by MBDA in the framework of its OneMBDA project with the aim of cutting some 30% off the costs of developing national missiles and optimising investments by gaining in synergy.
Apart from these cost reductions, which are of course major, what is the point of an agreement like this in a sector as sensitive as missiles?
If, in the context of Brexit, these centres of excellence confirm the importance of “tightening bilateral links, notably in a field where defence and armement cooperation – missiles – is particularly advanced and efficient,” according to Senator Jacques Gautier (Les Républicains) rapporteur on this agreement, the exceptional fact that France and the United Kingdom have agreed to greater military “mutual dependence” needs to be underlined… even if they are working towards protecting their strategic autonomy, the security of their supplies and the independence of their foreign policies. This agreement means that the two governments will accompany a deeper integration of the activities of their respective subsidiaries of the MBDA group, which holds between 20 and 25% of the global market, China and Russia apart.
The two countries already cooperate in the missile sector: the upgrade of the SCALP and Storm Shadow (SCALP-PSSCEP) cruise missiles and the light anti-ship missile (ANL); they have also agreed to launch a joint conception phase for the Future Cruise/Anti- Ship Weapon (FC/ASW) to identify solutions to eventually replace the SCALPs, Storm Shadows, Exocets and Harpoons. This programme would be the first major programme developed by the centres of excellence planned for by OneMBDA.
So, let’s have a look at these centres: they would be equitably shared between France and the United Kingdom, employing 600 staff in France and 400 in Great Britain. There would be two categories of centres. The first would regroup four federated centres of excellence which would work with employees from both countries, specialists in their given domain, but who would not move from their current work location. Each centre would be under single governance with one director who would have authority over both French and British teams; two French directors and two British. Each centre will be specialised in a precise sector: algorithms at Plessis-Robinson, Bristol and Stevenage; software at Bourges, Plessis-Robinson, Bristol, Stevenage and Lostock; navigation sensors at Plessis Robinson, Bristol and Stevenage; and complex military charges at Plessis Robinson and Lostock-Bolton.
The second category will group together centres of excellence which have a predominant speciality with the aim of consolidating 80% of the know-how and expertise linked to certain chosen technologies — either in France or in Great Britain — so as to establish an overall technological balance between the two States. The remaining 20% of this technology could remain in the other country “in order to enable it to work on existing weapons and on activities that are sensitive on a national scale,” Gautier explained.
There will also be four of these centres: two in France and two in Great Britain. The former will specialise in missile calculators (Plessis-Robinson) and testing equipment (Bourges) whilst the latter will specialise in missile embarked data link technologies (Stevenage and Bristol) and in flight surface actuators (Stevenage).
The law also clarifies the thorny question of intellectual property. It details that the States will not be able to hinder any exchange of information or transfer of intellectual property rights between the two MBDA subsidiaries, except if there are “serious national security restrictions,” said Gautier. In addition, the States will ensure that MBDA gives an identical licence of usage to both subsidiaries for any patented invention. Finally, this text will serve as the basis for the possible integration of other MBDA subsidiaries, such as its German and Italian ones.