By Tim Hepher
PARIS (Reuters) - With the ink barely dry on a deal between France and Germany to develop a new combat jet, Airbus and Dassault are squaring up for leadership of a project that could reshape Europe's fragmented fighter industry.
French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel unveiled the plans at a summit in July, burying past defense industry rivalries as part of efforts to tighten co-operation as Britain withdraws from the European Union.
The new combat system could involve a mixture of manned and unmanned aircraft and would eventually replace the Rafale and Eurofighter, rival jets that compete fiercely for global sales, as well as the older Panavia Tornado.
That sets the tone for co-operation between Airbus, which represents Germany and Spain in the Eurofighter consortium, and Dassault Aviation, the manufacturer of France's Rafale.
But there has been little formal discussion yet over the shape of the project, let alone who would take the lead in development, according to industry and defense officials.
Airbus, whose mostly Germany-based defense arm makes up about a quarter of its sales, laid claim to the leading role in an op-ed article published on Friday.
"On the assumption that the necessary political will is in place, Airbus is offering to drive cooperation with its European partners and to shape this aspect of our common European future," Dirk Hoke, chief executive of Airbus Defense & Space, wrote in Germany-based defense newsletter Griephan Briefe.
He described his company as "the lead...for a project of this nature."
Dassault has itself offered to be the "architect" of the Franco-German project and Chief Executive Eric Trappier told Reuters recently that it would be the natural leader due to its experience in building an all-French fighter plane.[nL5N1KH7O7]
Airbus's call also appeared aimed at speeding up the project as Germany looks to U.S. rivals to meet interim fighter gaps.
Germany earlier this year asked Washington for a briefing on the Lockheed Martin <LMT.N> F-35 fighter as it gears up to replace its current fleet of fighter jets from 2025. [nL1N1K206B] It has also asked for data on Boeing's F/A-18E/F.
Hoke said buying American could weaken the European defense industry and make it ever-more reliant on U.S. "black box" technology that is not shared with foreign operators, while injecting uncertainty into Franco-German plans for a new jet.
"An interim solution for the replacement of old fleets already appears probable. If important decisions are delayed, a stopgap of this type could take on a dimension that would cast doubt on the economic efficiency of the entire project," he said.
France and Germany said in July they aim to come up with a roadmap by mid-2018 for jointly leading development of the new aircraft to replace their existing fleets of rival warplanes.
Dassault Aviation appears to have been caught by surprise by July's announcement, which cut across its existing partnership with BAE Systems to build a demonstrator for an unmanned combat vehicle, called Future Combat Air System (FCAS).
Defense analysts say the French company is in a strong position to be in the driving seat from a technological point of view, having made it plain it regards BAE as its technological peer.
But at least for now, such considerations are likely to take a backseat to how the project will be funded amid tight defense budgets, an industry source said.
"It is quite normal for industrialists to claim leadership, but it is too early to talk about that," he added.
(Editing by Anna Willard)