KANT: A Workable Model for European Armaments Collaboration?

Image by Bundeswehr

Europe is currently facing a fundamental shift in its approach to armaments procurement: cooperation both between countries and manufacturers in the development and production of armaments is considered the only way forward in the coming decades. With Germany and France representing the vanguard of the European defense industry, the fate of their KANT project symbolizes the prospects for European cooperation as a whole. However, based on previous cooperation attempts, there are doubts concerning the likelihood of success. Have Germany and France learned from their past failures?

The post-World War Two era witnessed an intensifying competition and rising development costs for global weapons markets, making it increasingly difficult for states to sustain their defense industries. Collaboration served as a remedy to these difficulties, with recent decades seeing a significant rise in European states seeking partners in armament production. In theory, cooperation comes with a range of benefits, promising cheaper and better weapons that are developed faster. In reality, however, most collaborative projects do not succeed; and those that do often fail to live up to these promises. This was the case with the Napoleon project (1977-1982), which was ultimately unable to successfully produce a Franco-German tank. In 2015, however, France and Germany announced a new attempt at collaboration: the KANT project, merging the German tank maker Krauss-Maffei Wegmann (KMW) with the French company Nexter, with the aim of producing the next generation Western tank. The question posed by many analysts has consequently been whether the same difficulties that plagued the Napoleon collaboration will lead to KANT’s inevitable demise. With so much to gain from collaborating, and so little to lose, why were France and Germany unable to produce a tank together in the past?

Notwithstanding the extensive benefits of armament projects, collaboration is often plagued by obstacles on three different developmental levels: military, industrial and political. The problems on these levels are fundamentally rooted in the composition of the defense industry. Consisting of a combination of both economics, and security politics, armament procurement dynamics are far more complicated than it would seem. This dynamic is characterized by certain important features. Firstly, defense markets are not free markets, and governments are the only legitimate buyers of armaments. This means that defense companies cannot sell to whomever they chose, and their most important customer will almost always be the state in which it operates. Simultaneously, from the perspective of the state, the initiation of any collaborative projects in the defense arena must incorporate security politics. This is because military power is fundamentally linked to state survival. Armament procurement, by extension, is inextricably tied to a state’s ability to retain their military capabilities. As such, weapons negotiations symbolize a form of power. Actor dynamics are, consequently, incredibly complex on many different levels, involving a combination of several diverging preferences and motivations.

From the perspective of the military, the issue of negotiating a joint requirement is the biggest impediment when collaborating. This means that both countries involved in the project need to agree on what their new armament should look like. With regard to tanks, different militaries may have individual approaches to combat (such as preferring agile tanks over greater fire-power etc.). The worst-case scenario of negotiating a joint requirement is therefore that the military, simply put, will not receive the type of weapon they need. The question then arises as to whose military demands should be superseded and why? This was one of the many flaws of the Napoleon project, where the French and German military leaders were unable to agree on what the new tank should look like. From the perspective of the French and German military, it was difficult to rationalize making any sort of sacrifices in the security arena, even more so when negotiations were viewed as unfair. Because negotiations meant reaching a compromise on the type of tank each military wanted and needed, the respective militaries portrayed concessions as an operational loss, meaning that cooperation would not deliver on the promise of making a better tank.

On an industrial level, protecting the competiveness of a country’s defense industry is often the strongest deterrent to collaborative projects. While defence companies are dependent on government contracts, they are independent actors with their own preferences, motivations and ambitions. When not working together under the umbrella of international projects, they are fierce competitors, and so the relative benefits to be gained from collaboration projects will always be scrutinized by industrial actors. This industrial rivalry was particularly strong during the Napoleon project. Indeed, KMW claimed that it possessed technology Nexter did not, and therefore placed tremendous pressure on the German government to abandon the project. Ultimately, the more companies are preoccupied with protecting their own relative competitiveness, the more difficult collaboration will be with another industrial actor

Finally, there is the problem of the politics of armament procurement. Export policy, for instance, is often one of the major points of contention between states: should the countries involved be free to export to whomever they chose? And if not, will the damage caused by a restrictive export policy be worth the benefits of the project? Germany, for instance, has historically had very strict laws regarding the export of armaments to less developed nations, with the aim of keeping a low profile in the global arms market. For France, however, the developing world has served as its primary market, and its national policy consistently pushed for continued export to the Middle East and Africa. Because the sale of armaments is a highly controversial topic, the potential for domestic political fallout significantly complicates collaboration projects. This was the case during the Napoleon project, as strong German domestic political opposition to France’s export policy led to a withdrawal from the project in 1982.

What then has changed about present circumstances that could facilitate a Franco-German collaboration? Three main factors may point to some optimism for the KANT project. Firstly, within the last decade, German export policy has changed considerably. Germany now permits exports to the Middle East, with negotiations with both Qatar and Saudi Arabia having taken place in recent years. This means that the political considerations and policy restrictions that were so decisive during the Napoleon project are largely absent. Secondly, the industrial disagreements that took place during the Napoleon project may be somewhat alleviated by the KANT project’s composition: with KMW and Nexter actually merging parts of their companies to create KANT through a joint holding company, there will be less industrial rivalry between Nexter and KMW.

Ultimately, the factors that will determine the KANT project’s fate reflect a much larger issue in international relations: the trade-off between the benefits and disadvantages of international armaments collaboration. However, the practical and functional imperative for European states to collaborate means that collaboration is the only way forward. States can no longer sustain their defense industries, nor can they afford to produce all their armaments on their own. This movement towards greater cooperation can be seen with the establishment of the 2004 European Defense Agency, consisting of twenty-seven member states. The past decade has seen many similar initiatives, such as the 2009 Nordic Defense Cooperation agreement. Europe, though, remains dependent on Germany and France taking the lead on this fundamental shift in strategy, and so a successful outcome for the Kant project would be an important milestone towards the establishment of an effective and commercially sustainable model for European arms procurement. 

Image Courtesy of Bundeswehr.   CC. BY 2.0

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About Nora Kristine Stai

Nora is a student of International Relations at the University of St Andrews. Though originally from Oslo, she grew up in France, Switzerland and Belgium. She has worked for numerous student newspapers around Europe, and is currently contributing to a variety of publications in St Andrews.

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