The national holiday of 14 July is an opportunity to highlight the role of the armed forces in the economy of the territory.

The Aix-Marseille-Provence Metropolis is located in the southern zone of France’s national military defense network (the Zone de Défense Sud), and is a hub within which significant human and material resources for the security of the French mainland are located. It is home to a key operations and logistics center in Marseille and the Istres and Salon-de-Provence air force bases, and benefits from the proximity of major naval, aeronautical and space industry clients. July 14 is a national holiday in France, and an opportunity to reflect on the fact that Provence is one of France’s most important geographical areas for defense, offering opportunities in terms of training, employment and support for innovation and the local economy.

The Zone de Défense Sud is France’s second largest military zone, accounting for nearly 30% of armed forces headcount; that is, more than 70,000 civil and military personnel. Lieutenant-General Benoît Houssay commands the region from Marseille. This operational control structure, and the significant resources associated with it, are key assets to the Aix-Marseille-Provence economy.

Military Defense as a driver of economic value

France’s DGA defense procurement and technology agency engages in significant procurement in the region for its major armament programs. Public orders are picked up by major prime contractors and by local mid-cap companies, trickling down to serve an entire network of subcontracting SMEs.

A few recent examples: In May 2020, Aix-based company Novadem won a €4m contract for the manufacture of 50 drones, and in June, 20 helicopters were ordered from Marignane-based Airbus Helicopters, a world leader in light aviation and Europe’s No.1 military helicopter manufacturer.

Through its 2017 creation of the Definvest fund with Bpifrance, the French Armed Forces ministry has introduced a further engine to drive economic value creation. Its initial budget of €50m was doubled during the crisis in support of SMEs of strategic importance to the defense industry. In the Var region, the Tethys SME is preparing to receive this financial support as part of its international development of ejectable buoys for black boxes. In the Sud Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur region, more than 300 companies are regularly involved in the defense technologies sector.

Military aviation: The backbone of the aviation industry in Provence

Every year at the Salon-de-Provence’s Air Force Base No. 701, the École de l’air (EA) school provides an excellence-based education to nearly 700 students who will go on to careers as Air Force officers. Here, on this site – the training base of the national Patrouille de France display team – they train to become flying officers (pilots, navigators, weapons systems operators, etc.) and non-flying officers (base staff and aeronautical systems mechanical officers such as air operations controllers, computer engineers, cyber specialists, electronic systems and equipment specialists, drone operators, etc.).

At Istres, the “Charles Monnier” Air Force Base No. 125 plays an important role for the nation. Since the 1960s, it has been home to a strategic air force unit (FAS) responsible for France’s nuclear deterrent, as well as to the DGA’s leading flight research center. Its geographical location and area (6,000 acres) have seen it develop into a major logistics platform for external operations, testing and public service missions. Boasting Europe’s longest test track, cutting-edge test equipment and the internationally reputed EPNER test pilot school, Istres provides a perfect environment for attracting businesses.

The nearby Aix-Marseille-Provence metropolis offers airfield space and hangars at its Jean Sarrail aviation center to welcome new industry players. In 2019, the Turgis et Gaillard industrial group chose to relocate its AA’ROK design office here to develop innovative defense sector solutions (military equipment, hybrid boats, etc.).

Istres is also a strategic location for the Safran group, which regularly invests in this geographical area. Its new training and maintenance center for the M88 engine that powers Dassault’s Rafale fighter was inaugurated in December 2019, creating new opportunities for partnerships, especially with EPNER.

In connection with TEAM Henri-Fabre, whose ambition is to develop R&D projects in Provence for the “Usine du Futur 4.0” smart factory initiative, the Metropolis also offers industrial sites in the Saint-Victoret, Vitrolles and Marignane municipalities.

By establishing an operational base in the Parc des Florides, Canadian manufacturer Magellan Airspace (a regular contractor to Canada’s department of defense) has chosen to become a part of this environment, with strong historical roots in French Air Force aviation. Scalian, with its new regional headquarters, and Satys (a company specializing in surface treatments for civil and military aircraft) are also both among the companies attracted by the market and innovation potential found within the Provence ecosystem.

Military support for innovation

France’s Defense Ministry promotes disruptive and emerging technologies in all geographical regions in order to maintain the excellence of its industrial and technological defense base (BITD). It encourages French companies to form industrial partnerships; for example, as part of the European PEDID industrial defense development program, which has recently awarded tenders to two Aix-based companies (Novadem and Diginext)

Involvement today in such a program is an indication of potential eligibility for the future European Defence Fund (EDF) in 2021, which is expected to be endowed with €9bn over 6 years in support of a sovereign, independent and resilient defense industry.

France’s Defense Ministry provides direct support for innovative companies via the AID defense innovation agency. In April 2020, it launched a call for projects to combat COVID-19. 24 of the non-trading company’s 37 projects were selected, including the COMETE project implemented by Marseille’s marine fire brigade battalion to create mobile environmental (terrestrial and airborne) viral diagnostic laboratories developed by the innovative Marseille-based C4Diagnostics biotechnology startup.

Lastly, for more than 10 years, the RAPID (Régime d’APpui à l’Innovation Duale) innovation support system has been backing R&D initiatives by a number of Provence-based SMEs. With a proven track record in providing both financial and technical support, it provides entrepreneurs with access to a wide network of DGA experts. First Light Imaging, AP2E, EFER, Guimbal, Bertin, Inovsys, COMEX, VSM, Nerys and Solution F are just a few local companies that have taken advantage of its support to accelerate their projects, in many cases via partnerships with the Provence-based EUROBIOMED, OPTITEC and SAFE competition clusters and key innovation players in France’s southern region.

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