France challenges German air defence ambitions at Paris Air Show meeting

President Macron's officials want to strengthen collective defence

French President Emmanuel Macron arrives at the Paris Air Show at Le Bourget Airport. Reuters
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About 20 European ministers are meeting in Paris on Monday to discuss how to strengthen Europe’s air defences, a long-divisive issue that has taken on greater urgency because of Russia's war in Ukraine.

The meeting, at the invitation of French Defence Minister Sebastien Lecornu, has been described by analysts as a challenge to Germany's so-called Sky Shield initiative.

The 17-country initiative, which includes Romania, the UK, Belgium and Scandinavian states, aims to strengthen Nato's air and missile defence by acquisition, mostly from the US and from Israel.

The initiative does not include France, which did not appreciate the buying off the shelf approach, said Rafael Loss, co-ordinator of pan-European data projects at the European Council on Foreign Relations think tank.

France favours European-built defence systems, including its own.

“Buying off the shelf, from France’s perspective, too often means buying American,” Mr Loss said.

“France sees a pattern here: growing Germany unilateralism. France wants to be included in any major European defence initiatives, particularly when they could reshape security relations between European countries as ESSI [European Sky Shield Initiative] might.”

The air defence meeting was announced in February by French President Emmanuel Macron at a security conference in Munich in an effort “to snub but also engage the Germans”, Mr Loss told The National.

“The conference on air and anti-missile defence in Europe aims to reflect, among Europeans, on the future of air defence, the need for which has been reinforced by the Russian war of aggression against Ukraine,” according to a statement from Mr Macron's office.

Germany had initially planned to send Secretary of State Benedikt Zimmer to the Paris meeting instead of Defence Minister Boris Pistorius.

But the Financial Times reported on Monday that Berlin changed its mind at the last minute and that Mr Pistorius was on his way to Paris.

“It's a very positive sign,” Mr Loss said.

The meeting is at the Paris Air Show, a biennial event that is taking place for the first time in four years because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Researchers and defence company representatives are expected discuss technical aspects of air defence during three debates.

The results of their discussions will be presented to ministers on Monday afternoon at Les Invalides, a historical complex that houses a museum of the history of the French military.

Ministers attending the meeting are from Nato’s European allies.

France has not invited ministers from non-European members such as the US, Canada and Turkey, but has asked their Nato representatives to attend the meeting.

Ministers are expected to discuss nuclear deterrence, anti-ballistic defence systems, and ground-based defence systems.

Paris worries that Germany's Sky Shield Initiative, and Israel's Arrow 3 in particular, could signal to Russia that Germany and others do not trust in extended nuclear deterrence, and that this might tempt Russia to test Nato's resolve, Mr Loss said.

“French thinking centres on deterrence of and not so much defence against strategic attacks,” he said. “This is also why its nuclear force is so very much at the core of France’s idea of national sovereignty.”

Mr Macron is expected to give a speech shortly after 8pm, central European time.

Updated: June 19, 2023, 1:00 PM