A monumental slap. MBDA dreamed of being the European champion of hypersonic missiles (speed greater than Mach 5), direct competitor of American, Russian or Chinese groups in this ultra-strategic segment. The defeat of the group, beaten by a consortium led by the Spanish Sener in the major competition for the development of a hypersonic interceptor missile (EU HYDEF project), is a huge setback to the ambitions of the missile co-owned by Airbus (37 .5%), BAE Systems (37.5%) and Leonardo (25%). This 36-month project, endowed with 110 million dollars and financed by the new European Defense Fund (EDF), aims to work on the concept of a hypersonic endo-atmospheric (upper layer of the atmosphere) interceptor capable of treating threats by 2035.
On paper, MBDA was the clear favorite. European leader in the missile sector (4.2 billion euros in turnover, 13,000 employees), the group is the only player on the Old Continent to compete with the world giants (the Americans Raytheon and Lockheed Martin, the Israeli Rafael, the Russian Almaz-Antei), with 16% global market share and 43% in Europe. He is also at the forefront on the subject of hypersonics. “MBDA has been working on hypersonics for a long time: we are developing hypersonic armament (the future ASN4 airborne nuclear missile, editor’s note), underlined the group’s CEO, Eric Béranger, during the presentation of the group’s 2021 results on April 6. In terms of capabilities on the subject, MBDA has nothing to envy to anyone.”
The European missile had even been selected, in 2019, as pilot of the European project TWISTER (Timely Warning and Interception with Space-based Theater monitoring), which was already aiming to develop a hypersonic interceptor. MBDA unveiled the name of this missile, Aquila, in April. Six countries were involved in the program: France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain and Finland. The selection of the consortium led by MBDA for the HYDEF program, the logical continuation of this work, was therefore hardly in doubt, especially in the face of a relative unknown in the missile segment, the Spaniard Sener. The slap is all the more painful.
How could the European giant have tripped over the carpet in this way? Some sources refer to insufficient efforts on the part of the missile. This one would have, roughly speaking, sinned by pride, a bit like the space giant Astrium (Airbus), beaten in 2010 by the German challenger OHB on the Galileo satellite contract, when he was the great favorite of the competition. “Conversely, Sener and its partners were able to be extremely agile with the Commission”, assures a familiar with the file. Another close source assures that MBDA has made real efforts: “We looked carefully to see if there had been enough, but they really played the game,” assures this source.
Another explanation would be the general balance of the projects supported by the European Defense Fund: the Commission must ensure that all Member States are supported. But France has been well served: 178 French actors are present in the projects selected, which makes Paris the first Member State supported, ahead of Italy, Spain and Germany. “We can’t win everything, MBDA may have been a victim of this desire for balance,” says someone close to the case.
Sener, Diehl’s false nose?
Others familiar with the competition have another explanation: the consortium led by Sener would have made an extremely ambitious technical offer, attractive to the Commission, but not technically credible. What is it really? Brussels will study the proposal in detail by the end of 2022, according to the Grant Agreement procedure, a final evaluation of the project before the signing of the final contract. If the offer is deemed too risky or not sufficiently substantiated, the consortium led by MBDA, thrown out the door, could come back out the window. A scenario deemed not very credible by specialists.
The choice of the consortium led by Sener has, in any case, something to challenge. First, Sener Aeroespacial is virtually unknown in the world of missiles. It is in fact the aerospace division of the Sener engineering group, present in construction, energy and the maritime sector. According to its last published annual report, which dates from 2019, the Sener group achieved a total turnover of 434 million euros, including 99.3 million euros in aerospace (electromechanical systems, and communications for the defence, antennas for the space sector, etc. A modest figure, very close to the amount of the European subsidy for the HYDEF project. “We can ask if Sener has the shoulders to carry out a project of this size”, indicates a person close to the file.
The real technical leader of the consortium seems to be the German Diehl Defense (571 million euros in turnover in 2020). The latter, unlike Sener, is a real player in missiles: he manufactures under American license the Sidewinder air-to-air missiles, the Israeli Spike missile, and designs the IRIS-T SLM anti-aircraft system, which must be delivered to Ukrainian forces in September. It is the latter that seems to be the technical basis of the offer of the consortium led by Sener. Diehl had presented last June at the ILA air show in Berlin an improved version of this system, called IRIS-T HYDEF, equipped with an “ultra-agile second stage” capable of dealing with hypersonic targets.
Towards two competing projects?
Another subject of astonishment: the French actors are not represented in the selected consortium, which includes Spanish, German, Polish, Norwegian, Swedish, Czech and Belgian actors. France is, however, the only EU state that is developing hypersonic programs: the ASN4G missile (MBDA), and the V-MAX hypersonic glider (experimental maneuvering vehicle), entrusted to ArianeGroup, and whose military microcosm is impatiently awaiting the first flight. Italy and the Netherlands are also absent, although they appeared in the TWISTER programme.
Hence the big question: could MBDA’s project be maintained, even without the support of the European Defense Fund? The scenario appears conceivable, even probable. According to our information, France has every intention of continuing work with the European champion, considered the only credible player in hypersonic technologies. Other member states of the Twister project but excluded from the selected consortium, such as Italy, could follow. There could thus be two competing projects in hypersonics: that financed by the Commission, and that of MBDA, which certain Member States would finance. A duplication of skills not necessarily very beneficial for the weight of Europe. But the military industry of the Old Continent is getting used to it.