With government defence and security departments now working much closer, industry manufacturers no longer have to rely solely on domestic demand. General (retired) Jean-Albert Epitalon, director for land and air-land defence of French organisation GICAT, discusses the importance of collaboration between defence companies, and the work that is being done to open up foreign markets to domestic suppliers.
In 1970, five defence sector professionals recognised the need for better representation among policymakers. Not content with the communication structures in place, they set about creating an organisation capable of protecting the interests of the industry. They established what was later titled the French Land Defence and Security Industry Association (GICAT). Its dual role as a think tank to officials, and as a gateway between government departments and GICAT affiliates, has seen it become an integral part of the French defence landscape.
Decades later, its influence hasn't dwindled. Many defence manufacturers have outgrown their reliance upon the French Army and domestic buyers, and are now operating in lucrative foreign markets. As a result, GICAT's relationship with governments, its members and foreign investors has seen its value as a partner skyrocket.
Headquartered in Paris, the group consists of roughly 40,000 employees and 230 member companies (28 of which sit upon the board of directors). Multinationals, SMEs and subcontractors are all part of the community, and together they generate in excess of €5 billion worldwide - €2 billion of which is made up of exports to countries outside of France.
"It is a service that provides networking, economic intelligence, financial advice and critical information about the sector," says Jean-Albert Epitalon, who has been in charge of international development in defence for GICAT since 2007. "Our main areas of activity cover everything from ammunition, armoured vehicles, electronic systems, helicopters and UAVs for the army. We're also expanding in the training field with the likes of simulations."
Epitalon's 34-year career as an officer in the French Army apexed with his ascension to brigadier general, residing in the international branch for bilateral relations between the French Army and its allies. It's precious experience that he has been channelling in his mission to cement GICAT's intercontinental presence.
"Outside of Europe, GICAT is working with the Association of the US Army (AUSA), a link that is helping to bring together the French and US forces," says Epitalon. "We've also got strong ties with the Confederation of Indian Industry, which we have been consulting with on how to improve their sector."
GICAT is organised into six committees, each tasked with supporting and promoting their respective areas. The SME committee is charged with helping channel information to its members, improving relationships between them and facilitating the burgeoning export market.
"We take care of SMEs in the national market by informing government offices of the problems that our members are facing, and gauging from them the conditions of the export market," says Epitalon. "For example, at the moment, we are campaigning for wheeled armoured vehicle exportation as the French national programmes are nearly finished, and new ones won't begin for a few years."
Between 30 and 40% of France's defence sector is already built upon exports. GICAT is heavily involved in numerous security exhibitions, which grant its members a platform for international exposure and the opportunity to see the latest developments in equipment, an essential prospect for the industry's many SMEs and subcontractors.
The organisation's next rendezvous will be at the Eurosatory exhibition, organised by a subsidiary, which takes place 16-20 June in Paris. As the world's largest defence and security expo, more than 1,400 exhibitors will be in attendance from more than 50 countries.
"Only 440 of these are French, so it has great international coverage. We've also invited a lot of official delegates; in the last two years, we have seen roughly 20 ministers of defence and 20 national chiefs of staff attending, as well as hundreds of journalists covering the show," says Epitalon.
It's an event that will see the presentation of the GICAT export trophy to the most noteworthy defence company in this field. As well as granting the winner the use of prestigious GICAT label, it is an opportunity to increase visibility among the Eurosatory's influential clientele. As the association continues to open up untapped foreign markets, it's an award and partnership that could transform the export potential of the champion.