04.01.2023 Author: Salman Rafi Sheikh

Towards multipolarity: The geopolitics of non-US air-combat systems

The world is changing from a US-led unipolar world to a non-US-led multipolar world. Its sources are multiple and geographically diverse. The change is tied not just to the rise of Russia and China as two powers capable of challenging the US dominance, but also to the fact that many powerful states, otherwise traditionally tied to Washington, are increasingly moving away from the US orbit to developing what is now being called ‘indigenous’, or new (non-US), air combat systems, including 6th generation fighter jets. While these states, through these fighter jet programs, may not be openly challenging the US yet, the direction of this development does show their appetite to reduce their dependence on Washington and enhance their military – and strategic – autonomy. Europe defines its autonomy on the basis of being “an entity capable of taking its own decisions and determining its own future.” Having its fighters jets – and a joint security system – is crucial for actualising this definition.

More autonomy means more space to enact foreign policies that best suit their own interests rather than those of the US. More space to make and implement policies not reflecting US interests means a world with more than one power centre offering little space to US unilateralism. Hence, multipolarity.

As it stands, this is exactly what the French-German Future Combat Air System (FCAS), the UK, Italy, and Japan Global Combat Air Program (GCAP), Turkey’s TF-X indigenous fighter, and South Korea’s KF-21 Boramae fighter jet programmes reveal. All of these countries want to modernise militarily, but they want to do this not just by buying jets from the US, but mainly by developing their own jets. As France’s Airbus – which is one of the key developers of the FCAS system – mentions on its programme website, the FCAS “is a key instrument in ensuring future European autonomy and sovereignty in defence & security.”

This programme is not just an idea. In fact, on December 1, 2022, Airbus (representing Germany) and Dassault (representing France) reached an agreement on launching the third phase of the project, overcoming existing disagreements and stalemates regarding production, division of labour, and intellectual property rights. On December 15, France agreed on the contract for the third phase of production. Apart from Airbus and Dassault, the programme also includes a Spanish company called Indra. The FCAS is, therefore, being seen as a Europe-wide project, reinforcing a latent, yet very real, European search for an independent, or rather ‘indigenous’, security structure that is not necessarily tied to NATO.

Similarly, the Global Combat Air Program (GCAP) being jointly run by the UK, Italy and Japan is another addition to the developing menu of fighter jets that allows the relevant states to look beyond the made-in-American systems. In fact, the UK government was keen to stress the possibility of other NATO countries – mostly European – might buy into GCAP in the near future. Like the FCAS, the GCAP is also seeking continent-wide usage.

At the same time, the fact that Germany, France, and Spain are developing a separate fighter jet means that the FCAS and GCAP are two rivals in Europe. While they will compete for market, they will jointly squeeze the space for the US F-35 or the 6th generation ‘New Generation Air Dominance System.’ Therefore, while the Transatlantic Alliance is moving away from its dependence on the US, internal competition will also make it difficult for the alliance to continue to act as a unified bloc, especially if internal unity comes at the expense of much sought-after European autonomy in a multipolar world.

Indeed, this was the message that Macron gave in November when he unveiled France’s “national strategic review” and emphasised that France wants to be an “independent, respected, agile power at the heart of the European strategic autonomy”, adding that “When peace is back in Ukraine, we will need to assess all the consequences” via a “new security architecture” on the continent.

While Macron mainly represents France, the EU Parliament’s policy document on the EU’s strategic autonomy calls for “investment in defence capabilities” [which] should happen ‘in a collaborative way within the EU’ and ‘stimulate Member States’ collaborative investments in joint projects and joint procurement of defence capabilities’.” While one may suspect that this thinking might have changed post-Russian special military operations in Ukraine, the said document, published in July 2022 i.e., during the ongoing military conflict in Europe, stresses the importance of EU strategic autonomy in the wake of this very crisis.

While the EU’s quest can be explained with reference to the continent’s increasing displeasure with the US, it remains the case that the US itself is contributing to the world’s shift towards multipolarity. This is most evident in the case of Turkey, which, while a NATO ally, is also building its own indigenous fighter jet. As reports in Turkey’s official media show, producing TF-X, besides yielding many other advantages for the Turkish defence industry, will also make it possible for Turkey to reduce its dependence on the US and become “self-sufficient and independent,” adding that this will allow the Turkish Air Forces to “have absolute superiority in the region.”

What does all this mean for the US? If NATO was conceived of as an internally unified system, this is no longer the case – not only because this unity is gradually eroding, as the EU becomes more assertive, but also because there is a growing realisation that dependence on the US has a cost: strategic autonomy. In a crisis ridden world of today, it is now more important than ever to exercise this autonomy. Erstwhile US allies in and out of Europe are cultivating this autonomy as an asset of its own kind.

Salman Rafi Sheikh, research-analyst of International Relations and Pakistan’s foreign and domestic affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.“

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