After 40 some years of neck-and-neck competition with the Soviet Union, the fall of the Russian Empire gave America a huge lead on technology which meant that it was the only viable option on the finish line, when high-end military tech was needed. But that comfortable leadership has crumbled slowly over the years, and now European players have entered the high game.
Fighter jets and missiles: state-of-the-art technologies
The Dassault Rafale had, until recently, an unfortunate reputation of being unsellable, before making the finish line in a recent sale to Egypt. Before that, it had made the shortlist, but no further, in Brazil, Switzerland, Singapore, Libya, Morocco and others. Bad plane? Certainly not. Brazil opted for the cheaper option (the Saab Gripen): cheaper to buy, cheaper to operate. Now, the Swedish fighter is good, but nowhere near as good. When you pay peanuts, you get monkeys. The Rafale is faster, more powerful, has longer range, is more versatile (naval version available), and carries 30% more payload. Brazil may have opted away from the Rafale for financial reasons, but any expert agrees that the Rafale is an outstanding fighter jet.
Europeans have also developed leading counter-missile capabilities over the years. To the extent that the US Navy dumped their own anti-missile systems to purchase BAE’s missile counter-measures. According to many experts, Europeans dominate the market for soft kill measures and active protection systems. In 2013, MBDA passed tests for a theater-scale anti-ballistic missiles capability, through the Aster SAMP/T system. Theater-scale missiles are the harder type to intercept, and the test was run using mixed NATO personnel, so as to vouch for the weapon’s capacity to be operated jointly by allied forces. Lower-scale counter-measure have existed for a long time, with mature technology, also dominated by the Europeans. In the European theater, the immense complexity of anti-ballistic capabilities have come to light, especially in the case of large-dimension theater-scale missiles, to the extent that NATO focuses its development efforts in that area.
Technological leadership shift
The reason for this shift in technological leadership is double: the first is simple scientific development. The United States had a great advance at the end of World War 2, due to technology transfers, and the fact that their production and research centers had stayed out of combat zones throughout the war. European countries took a few years (or decades) to fill the gap, but they have now. The second reason is the growing regulation entanglements which have grown all over arms sales. The United States have limited their armament sales with a tight legal frame, International Traffic in Arms Regulations. Designed to control irregular arms transfers, it also limits their own ability to trade with foreign countries, and has gradually slowed the pace of sales, by deterring customers with increasing amounts of red tape. Many prospects have approached US weapons firms for their products, but have backed off in front of the regulations and restrictions, which the Senate will not waive.
Another possible explanation for the downwards drift is lack of flexibility. The United States quickly got used to being the world champion in armament. This meant that customers had no other option to turn to, when they wanted high-grade armament, which will mollify any client. Europeans have spotted that America lacked flexibility facing client needs, and jumped into the gap, gaining credit in the customer’s eyes, by not imposing their own strategic choices, but adapting to exactly what the client needs. The Nexter Systems VBCI has been a rising challenger for American Armored Personnel Vehicles. One of the channels Nexter Systems used is the specific adaptation of their vehicles to the clients’ wishes and needs. In 2013, it adapted its VBCI with a Russian BMP3 turret, in a bid towards the United Arab Emirates. Although the deal wasn’t sealed for Nexter Systems, it did manage to give competitors a scare, with its modularity and flexibility. A habit it confirmed recently at the IDEX 2015, with a heavier variant and a new CTA 40 turret for added firepower. But future upgrades could be promising too: “a mid-life update of the VBCI is expected in due course with the aim of improving the vehicle's existing functions, integrating new functions and new technologies, and managing any potential future obsolescence issues. Current plans include integrating an anti-tank missile capability into the Tarask turret, along with adding the SICS information system, CONTACT tactical communications system, enhanced optronics, vetronics, and new ammunition”, wrote IHS analyst. The best is yet to come, but not from United-States.
In 2010, the world was even surprised to find out that the Saudis were turning away from their long-time ally, the USA, in fulfilling their need for new main battle tanks, by purchasing hundreds of Leopard 2 tanks. The American shelf had become somewhat impoverished, between an ageing Abrams, way surpassed by German urban conflict capacity, and reactive armor coatings. According to many experts, the F-35 program durably harmed American military marketing positions, by pressing allies to buy into an overpriced and dubious weapon system. That may have been the last straw for countries which were growing weary of America’s regulatory domination and ITAR paperwork. It is painstaking enough to be imposed upon by a foreign government, but when the military goods they are peddling are ill-adapted and way inferior, in many ways, to alternatives, time comes to shake loose of the hegemony.
But the tables have turned. Western countries now have developed weapons equal to America’s, when not superior. Now that the tide has turned, it might already be too late for American armament salesmen.