Italy Urges France To Discuss 'Naval Airbus'

14 October 2016

Senior officials from Italy’s defense industry and armed forces have issued an unusual appeal for closer cooperation between Italian and French shipyards that could lead toward what is being described in Italy as a “naval Airbus."

The officials set out their case at a conference in Rome on Sept. 27 where Giuseppe Bono, the CEO of Italian shipyard Fincantieri, made it clear he was keen on a possible team-up with French naval yard DCNS.

“We must work together — today there is competition between European firms, but the competition should be between European firms and the rest of the world,” he said.

Citing the “spirit of Europe,” he added: “The integration and consolidation of the industry in Europe is important and the French are saying the same thing. Industry will do this before politicians, who will then follow.”

France, he added, was both a competitor in export competitions but also a partner on programs including Horizon and FREMM frigates, which Fincantieri has designed with French industry for deployment with the French and Italian navies.

“We’ve been working together for at least 20 years,” he said.

Asked about the chance of creating a naval equivalent of Airbus in Europe, he said: “If we don’t talk about this, every chance of growth in Europe will disappear. European firms cannot compete abroad alone anymore.”

Speaking at the conference, Italy’s chief of general staff, Gen. Claudio Graziano, said that “in the future there will be a greater need to find the right balance between the protection of national competitiveness and an ever greater cooperation and integration at European level.”

Adm. Matteo Bisceglia, Italy’s head of naval procurement, criticized Europe’s “fractured” European naval industry and praised Italy’s decades of cooperation with French industry.

That cooperation has not always been smooth. Differences on design work relating to the joint FREMM frigate program mean France and Italy have built ships that are the same type on paper, but differ in reality.

Instead of mounting joint export campaigns, they have competed to sell FREMMS to the same countries.

A joint effort to build torpedoes has also broken down over disagreements regarding control.

Fincantieri signed a €3.8 billion (US $4.3 billion) contract to sell seven naval vessels to Qatar in June, but not before France made a serious attempt to scupper the deal and convince Qatar to purchase French FREMM frigates instead of the Italian vessels.

Fincantieri may feel it now has a better hand to negotiate a partnership with DCNS following the Qatar deal. The firm is also benefiting from a €5.4 billion shipbuilding program launched by Italy, which will see the construction of a new landing helicopter dock and new so-called PPA multi-purpose vessels. Fincantieri is also a successful producers of civilian cruise ships.

Bisceglia said he had not ruled out possible interest from France in the PPA design, saying that if France joined the program there would be “notable advantages in terms of economies and technology.”

That possibility was highlighted by a report on European shipyard integration put out in September by the Centro Studi Internazionali, the Rome think tank which held the conference.

The report argued that an evolution of the PPA design might fight the bill for the French Navy’s new Fregate di Taglia Intermedia program.

Despite tough competition between the countries in recent export campaigns, the future could see “important synergies” in overseas sales, the report argued.

Any alliance would not touch France’s submarine activity, given that it was central to France’s nuclear deterrent, the report stated. Italy, for its part, enjoys strong ties with Germany’s ThyssenKrupp Marine Systems, with which it has built a series of submarines using German air-independent propulsion technology, the report added.

Seeking ties with the UK’s naval industry would serve little purpose, the report stated. “The chances for collaboration are currently minimal,” it said. “For years, UK shipyards have hardly been present in the export market and substantially live off [Ministry of Defence] programs.”

The timing of the report chimes with moves by Italy, France and Germany to revive plans for a more unified European military and a more integrated industrial base following plans to leave the European Union by the UK, which has long opposed such joint military planning.

The report said an Italian-French naval tie-up would be better able to secure future EU funds for defense industry investment.

Fincantieri's CEO said that any talks on a “naval Airbus” would not be held exclusively between Italy and France, but would include all European states.

“We are talking to everyone,” Bono said. He then cited the recent shortlisting by Australia of firms to build nine new frigates.

“In Australia there are three European firms shortlisted — BAE, Navantia and us — which shows you there is a problem,” he said.


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