A Day Late and a Jet Short
Samuel Hollins | Lancaster University
Meeting a short time after 21 April 1969, Dr Gerhard Schröder and A.R.M Jaffray found themselves united together in their shared desire to see the collaborative Multi-Role Aircraft for 1975 (MRA-75) programme takeoff for a host of political, strategic, economic, and industrial reasons. As the Defence Minister of the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG) and Denis Healey’s (British Secretary of State for Defence) Personal Secretary, respectively, these two men were of one mind; the programme must commence, and it must do so imminently. This shared desire was tested when Pierre Messmer, the French Minister of Defence, offered to throw France’s hat in the proverbial ring and join the programme. Both men agreed once more; this offer was undergirded by destructive intentions. The Cold War had bound France and Britain together as crucial NATO allies. However, relations between these two states have been frequently competitive and often underhanded, especially in arms procurement and arms trading. With Europe’s premier military-industrial-scientific complexes, France and Britain found themselves natural competitors, whilst also being fundamentally important allies.
Setting the scene; it’s 1969, the Cold War is as tense as ever, and the European Economic Community (EEC) is snowballing and stabilising. The world’s “developed” nations are battling against the exponentially escalating costs of advanced military hardware and the concurrently rising ceiling of technological proficiency. Former colonial and imperial powers, most notably Britain, are floundering economically and are drastically reducing their commitments abroad to compensate. Those shrinking imperial powers are shifting their focus from their former colonial provinces toward Europe. In the wake of the Second World War, a superpower dyad has formed comprised of the US and the USSR. Beyond these bitterly opposed hegemonic monoliths, smaller states, particularly in NATO, are grasping for technological parity with the world’s two superpowers. Increasingly, states are turning to collaborative modes of defence procurement, for the most part, through bilateral arrangements. The logic is to spread development and production costs between two nations and guarantee much larger unit orders – what economists call “economies of scale”. Simply put, more orders equal lower unit prices. States with less advanced aerospace industries lack the knowledge and expertise possessed by Britain and France, placing them in an even more precarious position. Four options appear to present themselves to all states beyond the superpower dyad: purchase military hardware “off-the-shelf” (most likely from the US), purchase a production license to produce foreign aircraft (again, most likely from the US), collaborate with capable allies in development and production, or simply accept strategic and technological inferiority.
In 1975 a study by Bjorn Hagelin discussed twelve contemporaneous collaborative defence projects in Europe. The study thus highlighted the emergence of collaboration as an increasingly common European practice in the procurement of advanced military technologies. This included but was not limited to the Anglo-French SEPECAT Jaguar jet attack aircraft, the Tornado, and the Martel Missile System. Of these eleven projects, only the Tornado was developed by more than two nations. Spanning eleven years, beginning in 1968 and reaching completion by 1979, the Tornado was the product of a cooperative endeavour undertaken by the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG), Britain, and Italy to jointly develop a multi-role aircraft platform. The intention was to derive several different, specialised variants from what was, essentially, the same aircraft. Variable-geometry – the ability to change an aircraft’s aerodynamic profile mid-flight through movable components – was central to the concept of the Tornado. With this emergent technology, the aircraft would possess the capacity to operate effectively at varying altitudes and in differing strategic roles.
Early in the Tornado’s development, French officials were exerting significant pressure on their West German counterparts to join their nationally conceived Dassault Mirage G aircraft programme. Crucially, they sought German participation in a programme they would lead and possess the controlling interest within. The Mirage would be a distinctly French aircraft developed with the economic and industrial assistance of the Germans. When cooperating in defence production in this period and into the 1980s, France tended to prefer pilot-arrangements in which it would take firm leadership. Germany had been happy to comply, content to defer to the French. The Germans would not have pursued both the Mirage and Tornado, owing to the extreme cost of undertaking two projects simultaneously and the fundamentally overlapping strategic roles of the two aircraft. Like the Tornado, the Mirage G incorporated variable- geometry, making it adaptable to a range of tasks. Internal programme materials held at The National Archives (TNA) in Kew, London, indicate that the Germans never seriously considered opting for the Mirage and had every intention of pursuing the Tornado.
You might think that the attempted intercession of the French here is only a result of their desire to secure a more cost-effective economy of scale for the Mirage. After all, France had no real need for West Germany’s comparatively poor industrial experience in terms of technical proficiency in aircraft development. The Germans could offer little experience or technical know-how that the French did not already have in surplus. The British and French industries were significantly more experienced in developing advanced military jet aircraft than their cousins in Europe. Whilst considerations of cost are undoubtedly important, this neglects the whole story. The French had vested interests in facilitating the failure of the Tornado. In the late 1960s, Britain remained outside of the EEC but sought entry, having attempted to join several times. Each time, by way of French veto, British incursion into this grand European experiment had been halted. Why might the French want to keep Britain outside of the EEC? To put it simply, France was the most militarily powerful state in the EEC, and she possessed one of the continent’s premier economies. It is hardly surprising then that France had significant influence over the Community and, as a result, the other member states. France feared that British attachment to the Community would counterbalance its power due to Britain’s comparable size, economic and industrial capacity, and military strength. The Italians certainly felt that the French had designs on moulding the EEC into a French sphere of influence. The former Italian Ambassador in Paris, Pietro Quaroni, plainly stated in 1970 that their support for British entry into the Common Market was precisely because they wanted to bisect French hegemony.
How does this relate to the Tornado, then? The Tornado was, in part, a vehicle for demonstrating to EEC members Britain’s commitment to joining the community and her value as a partner. Both Italy and Germany, as well as withdrawn project partners such as the Netherlands, were members of the Community, and their support would be essential for securing admittance in the face of consistent and firm French opposition. These aircraft programmes were intensely complex and, ultimately, extremely expensive, representing moments of close international integration. Bureaucratic and industrial structures would be erected and sustained for many years, intimately bonding not only private contractors but also governments and militaries. The Tornado’s parent states, joined by a new European partner, Spain, would all collaborate to begin production of the Eurofighter Typhoon in the early-1980s, utilising much of the programme apparatus established for the Tornado. It is no wonder then that the Tornado was a prime target for French finagling.
Not only had France attempted to draw the Germans away from the programme, but they had also attempted to intercede directly within it. In late April 1969, in conversation with the FRG’s Defence Minister, Dr Gerhard Schröder, French officials had broached entry into the MRCA programme with a promised order of forty aircraft. It could be assumed that this indicates French enthusiasm for the project and a desire for it to succeed. However, this assumption is unsustainable. Internal British programme materials detail how this French proposal was viewed with definite suspicion. A.R.M. Jaffray, Personal Secretary to British Secretary of State Denis Healey, believed this offer to be a “derisory ploy”. The intention, or so Jaffray strongly suspected, was to delay the programme, leading to its ultimate disintegration.
By April 1969, the programme was in limbo, wobbling precariously in its feasibility phase. Italy and the Netherlands were on the verge of withdrawing owing to rapidly escalating cost projections and unfavourable aircraft specifications, West German and British officials were locking horns over the selection of an engine, and all four remaining nations had yet to sign a formal Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) which would bind them to the endeavour more firmly and push them into formal project definition. The Germans were particularly uneasy about delaying the signing of the MoU, and had indicated in no uncertain terms, that they would begin their own project should Britain fail to sign soon. The Tornado, known during development as MRCA, had started life under the name MRA-75, or Multi-Role Aircraft for 1975. The apparent intention being to have units in operation by mid-decade. Further tarrying would exacerbate the name’s already palpable irony. The Tornado only scraped into the 1970s, with the first production unit (BT 001) rolling out of a Warton hanger on 5 June 1979. Any further delays to the start of the project’s definition phase would have dramatically increased the likelihood of programme failure.
The necessity of time should draw French intercession into sharp relief. As Dr Schröder and Jaffray both recognised, any French incursion would substantially delay the project, at best furthering the process of cost escalation and, at worst, delaying the project long enough for it to burn out and die. Forty aircraft would hardly satisfy French strategic needs. The number of aircraft the French would require would be similar to Germany and Britain, given their comparable size. Further, the Tornado’s capabilities would necessarily overlap with its own national Mirage project, leading to an entirely unnecessary duplication of work and thus contributing to wasteful defence spending. West German and British orders were projected to be well over three hundred aircraft apiece, Italy was committing to two hundred, and the Netherlands had been considering one hundred. Amongst this cohort, the proposed French order is laughably and suspiciously anaemic.
Britain and France worked together on several successful collaborative programmes in this period, including the SEPECAT Jaguar. The Mirage G had arisen from the ashes of the failed Anglo-French Variable Geometry (AFVG) aircraft only a few years prior. It is not so much that the French wanted to encourage a deficiency in Britain’s strategic capabilities. After all, they were key NATO allies and would need each other should the Cold War go hot. Rather, there were political motives for the French desire to see the project fold. Political gamesmanship is part and parcel of international relations and is certainly a flourishing and ever-expanding topic of discussion. It is hardly unique to the Anglo-French experience, but it is, I suspect, particularly intense between these two constantly jostling cousins.
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Edgar, A. “The MRCA/Tornado: The Politics and Economics of Collaborative Procurement.” In The Defence Industrial Base and the West, edited by D.C. Haglund, 46-85. (London: Routledge, 1989)
Heath, B.O. “The MRCA Project.” The Aeronautical Journal 74, no. 714, (1970): 444-456
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Samuel Hollins is a second-year PhD candidate in Lancaster University’s History Department. His PhD, which is AHRC funded and in collaboration with the Royal Air Force Museum, explores Britain's political, strategic, and economic rationale in the 1960s and 1970s. Samuel is also the Coordinating Editor for EPOCH History Magazine and has worked for the UK MOD, contributing to the incoming seventh edition of its Global Strategic Trends publication. Samuel holds memberships of the Centre for War and Diplomacy and the Royal Air Force Historical Society. Samuel has recently been awarded the Henry Probert Bursary by the RAF Historical Society and taken up the role of Institutional Ambassador for the British Society for the History of Science.