Future Combat Air System: Industry squabbles over largest European defence project

The governments of France, Germany and Spain want to develop an AI-based air defence network by 2040. It consists of a new generation of fighter jets accompanied by swarms of drones. A „Combat Cloud“ will then ensure networking with other units on the ground and in the air.

The next stage in the development of a new type of an European air combat system will be delayed. The reason is disputes over competencies among the defence companies involved, which therefore let a deadline for submitting bids on 5 February expire. This was the response of the German Federal Ministry of Defence to a question from Tobias Pflüger, member of the Bundestag. According to this, there are not yet „consented individual offers“ in all technology areas.

Together with France, Germany wants to develop a nuclear-capable „Future Combat Air System“ (FCAS) over the next 20 years, which essentially consists of a new type of combat aircraft. It is to belong to the so-called „sixth generation“ and therefore bears the designation „Next Generation Fighter“ (NGF). In the meantime, Spain has also joined the project.

Fighter aircraft of the „after next generation“

Strictly speaking, the NGF is even an „after next generation“, because the combat aircraft flown in Europe, including the „Eurofighter“, do not have „fifth generation“ characteristics. These include stealth capabilities or computer systems that are interconnected with other units in the air and on the ground for improved situational awareness. In this way, all components form a common „air defence network“.

As a „sixth generation“ combat aircraft, the new fighter jet is also to be networked with other offensive weapons with the help of artificial intelligence. For this purpose, the manned „Lead Aircraft“ will be accompanied by swarms of drones („Remote Carriers“). In this function, the unmanned aerial vehicles are also referred to as „loyal wingman“.

MUT tests with target drones (Airbus).

Flying drones in a swarm goes by the name of „Manned-Unmanned Teaming“ (MUT), and the German subsidiary of the European defence company Airbus has already tested this over the Baltic Sea. MUT flights could be carried out by the „Eurodrone“, the development of which the Bundestag is to decide on 24 March. It is also possible to drop swarms of smaller drones from high-flying transport aircraft, as Airbus has simulated with the German Aerospace Centre.

Finally, the third element of the FCAS is an „Air Combat Cloud“ (ACC), which is responsible for the exchange of data between the networked systems. In this way, all the platforms involved are to merge into a „system of systems“. At a meeting of the German Aerospace Industries Association, the German Air Force therefore described the project as „the largest European armament project ever“.

Who will receive a test aircraft?

After the Franco-German Council of Defence Ministries of both countries gave the green light for the development of an FCAS in 2017, the Defence Ministers Ursula von der Leyen and Florence Parly decided in 2019 on an initial „Demonstrator Phase 1A“, which finally began a year ago. In this process, the defence groups of the participating countries were to draw up a concept and design for the fighter aircraft and determine which propulsion system and technology would be on board. At that time, Germany and France had spent about 65 million Euros on a concept study, and „Phase 1A“ cost another 155 million Euros.

At the Paris Air Show in 2019, the companies involved showed a mock-up of the future NGF (JohnNewton8, CC-BY-SA 4.0).

By 2028, a first flight-capable model should then be created in a „Demonstrator Phase 1B“, which can then be used for tests. This is precisely what has been in dispute for some time. The future aircraft is to be built by the French company Dassault, while the German division of Airbus would be the main subcontractor. Dassault would therefore also receive the demonstrator and be allowed to test it for the further development of the system. Airbus, on the other hand, demands to have a test aircraft as well, so the demonstrator would have to be built in duplicate. A first prototype should then be produced by 2030.

In total, there are seven technology areas for FCAS, each of which is the responsibility of an industrial consortium. In the first phase, five of these areas have been activated, including the fighter aircraft and its propulsion system. The engines are to be built by the French Safran Group and the German company MTU Aero Engines, and now the Spanish manufacturer ITP is also being brought on board.

Airbus is also responsible for the „unmanned components“ sector to accompany the fighter with drones, with the French division of the European missile manufacturer MBDA acting as the main subcontractor. To further develop the overall FCAS system, Airbus, MTU and MBDA are cooperating in the area of „programme consistency“.

With the entry of Spain, the Spanish defence company Indra also took a leading role in the FCAS project. In the autumn, the three governments involved entrusted Indra with the leadership of the technology area for the development of an „innovative sensor suite“. Other contractors are the French Thales Group as well as an alliance of the four German companies Hensoldt, Diehl Defence, ESG and Rohde & Schwarz, which have joined forces under the acronym FCMS („Future Combat Mission Systems“). All companies are traditional partners of the Bundeswehr. The German government recently secured a blocking minority in the Airbus spin-off Hensoldt – presumably in view of its participation in FCAS.

Possible total cost of 500 billion Euros

The „Demonstrator Phase 1A“ is scheduled to end in the summer. The costs for the next phase „1B“ cannot be specified by the German government because the offer is still pending. A document from the French National Assembly states that the demonstrator alone could cost around 12 billion Euros. The development of the entire FCAS is estimated at over 100 billion Euros.

The total subsequent cost of purchasing the systems could amount to 500 billion Euros. In addition, there are research programmes for national contributions to the system, such as that funded by the German Ministry of Defence in the „Innovations for FCAS“ project. Airbus has been conducting similar, long-secret research for many years under the name „Low-Observable UAV Testbed“.

The number of FCAS ordered by the Luftwaffe is to be decided at a later stage (Airbus).

The German parliament must decide on the release of „Demonstrator Phase 1B“. According to the Ministry of Defence, the goal is still to submit a bill to the Bundestag „before the end of the first half of 2021“. Whether this timetable can be met, however, is questionable. Because when the delayed offer from the many companies involved is finally submitted, it must first be examined by the Ministry of Defence.

At the Franco-German Defence and Security Council on 5 February, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron therefore instructed their defence ministers to „create the conditions for this very quickly in the next few weeks“. Then the networking and automation of manned and unmanned weapons systems in a high-tech military project could be put on track as planned before the German elections.

Image: The new „sixth generation“ combat aircraft is networked with numerous other weapon systems. The overall system has a high degree of autonomy (Airbus).

Autor: Matthias Monroy

Knowledge worker, activist, editor of the German civil rights journal Bürgerrechte & Polizei/CILIP.