July 4, 2018 / 4:02 PM / a year ago

Spain offered 'observer status' on new European fighter jet

BERLIN (Reuters) - Germany and France have offered Spain “observer status” on a program to develop a new European fighter jet, but want to keep the project as a binational endeavor for now to ensure it moves ahead quickly, according to a German government source.

The new program, first announced by the French and German governments a year ago, has begun to take shape in recent months, with France set to take the lead on the development of the next-generation combat jet.

Spain had sent a letter to its NATO allies asking to participate in the critical industrial undertaking in December, according to the government source and several industry sources.

The German and French defense ministries then responded in April, offering Madrid the opportunity to observe the fledgling program as it took shape, but without the ability to shape its initial parameters. No reply had yet been received from Spain, the government source said.

“The reason is not to exclude anyone but to ensure accelerated work on the program,” said the source, who was not authorized to speak publicly.

Spain and other countries would likely be able to participate in later stages of the program, the source said, a view embraced by the companies involved.

The Spanish Defence Ministry confirmed it received the letter and said it was currently assessing the offer. Spain holds a 4 percent stake in European planemaker Airbus, while France and Germany each hold a stake of 11 percent.

The new warplane is intended to replace from 2040 the Rafale fighter built by France’s Dassault Aviation and the Eurofighter Typhoon, built by a European consortium comprised of Airbus, Britain’s BAE Systems and Italy’s Leonardo.

It is expected to be at the center of a broader weapons system, capable of commanding a squadron of drones.

Dassault and Airbus signed an agreement in April to work together on the new project, but avoided saying which of the two groups would be in charge. The fact that France is now in the driving seat of the project favors Dassault to take charge since most of Airbus’ defense activities are in Germany.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron agreed to jointly develop the new aircraft shortly after his election in May 2017, burying past rivalries in favor of tighter defense cooperation.

Additional reporting by Belen Carreno in Madrid; Editing by Alison Williams

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