France and Germany clash (again) on buying US arms

PARIS — France and Germany̵7;s long-running dispute over whether European countries should buy American weapons was laid bare in a joint interview of the countries’ defense ministers published in Le Monde on Wednesday.

The main bone of contention is the German-led European Sky Shield Initiative (ESSI), launched in the fall of 2022, which gathers 19 countries and is based on joint procurement of air defense systems. The plan is aimed at creating a four-level air defense system ranging from immediate battlefield protection to being able to halt much longer-range threats. It is aimed at giving NATO members more robust air defenses in light of the experience garnered from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

The project includes purchases of German, American and Israeli weaponry: the very short range Close Air Defence System (LVS NNbS), which consists of a turret mounted on an armored fighting vehicle and equipped with a radar, a cannon and missiles; Germany’s medium-range air-to-air IRIS-T SLM missile; the U.S.-made long-range surface-to-air Patriot missile; and Israel’s very-long range Arrow hypersonic anti-ballistic missiles.

The foreign components are sparking friction, as French President Emmanuel Macron is trying to convince European capitals to sign contracts with the bloc’s industry rather than spend European money on American, Israeli and South Korean companies.

 “At a time when European taxpayers are going to have to put a lot of money on the table … everyone will agree that it’s not by buying the American Patriot system that we’ll strengthen our autonomy,” French Armed Forces Minister Sébastien Lecornu told Le Monde, echoing comments made by Macron in June.

But his German counterpart Boris Pistorius said speed is of the essence, and European industry is not able to fulfil all current needs.

“What matters to us is to have a shield over Europe as fast as possible. We are ready to acquire non-European systems until we have developed our own systems in Europe,” he said. “The European defense industry, including the French, are obviously important partners, but they can’t deliver everything we need.”

The two ministers will meet on Thursday at France’s Évreux air base to discuss the Franco-German plan for a next-generation battle tank — known as the Main Ground Combat System (MGCS) — and both insisted that the project is very much alive. The MGCS was initiated in 2017 by Macron and then-German Chancellor Angela Merkel, in a bid to replace France’s Leclerc tank and Germany’s Leopard 2 tank sometime between 2035 and 2040. 

The project has been delayed, among other reasons, by long-running spats between France and Germany on the division of responsibilities for building the new tank and export prospects.

On Thursday, both ministers will formally approve the operational requirements for the MGCS, Lecornu said. Other EU countries are welcome to join the project, Pistorius added.