Future Combat Air System (FCAS): Franco-German-Spanish sixth-generation fighter jet project

Visitors attend the unveiling ceremony of the full-scale jet fighter model of the French-German-Spanish new-generation Future Combat Air System at the 2019 Paris Air Show. (Eric Piermont/AFP via Getty Images)

German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen and French Defense Minister Florence Parly announced plans to produce a new joint fighter jet dubbed as the Future Combat Air System (FCAS).

Germany and France signed a $160 million deal on February 20 to develop the prototype of a next generation fighter jet, the first steps in an ambitious European defense strategy. This is part of the new Future Combat Air System (fcas) project, aimed at allowing Europe to better defend itself, rather than relying on allies.

The prototypes are to be designed by Germany’s Airbus and France’s Dassault Aviation, intended to replace the Eurofighter and Rafale jets they currently produce for Germany and France separately. The prototype is to be completed by 2026 with a total investment of about $4.3 billion.

French Armed Forces Minister Florence Parley said this joint project “illustrates our will and ambition for a European defense.” She went on to tweet, “Some voices, little concerned with the truth, spoke out against the Treaty of Aachen. What we are doing today with the Franco-German fighter jet of the future is concrete, balanced, makes us stronger and prepares for the defense of Europe.”

German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen and French Defense Minister Florence Parly spoke at Gennevilliers near Paris at a facility operated by Safran Aircraft Engines, which will produce the jet’s new engine in collaboration with Germany’s MTU Aero Engines.

Parly praised the joint venture on Twitter, writing that the new project would “affirm the close relationship between our air forces, in operational as well as technological terms.” 

Parly also made reference to the recent meeting between French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel in the western German city of Aachen, writing: “Some voices, little concerned with the truth, spoke out against the Treaty of Aachen. What we are doing today with the Franco-German fighter jet of the future is concrete, balanced, makes us stronger and prepares for the defense of Europe.”

The new joint fighter jet will eventually replace Germany’s Eurofighter Typhoon (seen here), as well as France’s Rafale jets

Two years coming

The FCAS program is envisioned as a futuristic air power weapon that will replace the Rafale and Eurofighter fleets in France and Germany beginning in 2040. It consists of a manned aircraft, the Next-Generation Fighter, accompanied by drones of specialized capabilities, like reconnaissance and strike. A so-called combat cloud will pump command-and-control data between all program platforms, essentially creating a flying network of sensors and weapons with the manned Next-Generation Fighter as its hub.

This phase will, in a first step, focus on the main technological challenges per domains:

  • Next Generation Fighter (NGF), with Dassault Aviation as prime contractor and Airbus as main partner, to be the core element of Future Combat Air System,
  • Unmanned systems Remote Carrier (RC) with Airbus as prime contractor and MBDA as main partner,
  • Combat Cloud (CC) with Airbus as prime contractor and Thales as main partner,
  • Engine with Safran and MTU as main partner.

Von der Leyen spoke of the larger scope of the defense project, announcing that France’s Dassault Aviation and European manufacturer Airbus have already signed a contract to produce a concept study for a shared air combat system.

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The fighter jet is one component of the Next Generation Weapons System (NGWS), with the manned jet operating in conjunction with other new weapons and swarms of drones linked to it by a so-called combat cloud.

The NGWS is itself part of the Future Combat Air System (FCAS) project first announced by French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel in July 2017. The project is slated to include a variety of unmanned aircraft and missiles.

In January, Airbus Defense and Space and Dassault Aviation were awarded a €65 million ($74 million) two-year contract to develop the architecture and manufacturing structure of the new FCAS project. The money will be split 50/50 by the European partners.

Wednesday’s contract signing was the culmination of two years of preparatory work by Airbus, Dassault, Safran and MTU. The French electronics company Thales and European missile maker MBDA will also be participants.

The new joint fighter jet will eventually replace Germany’s Eurofighter Typhoon (seen here), as well as France’s Rafale jets

Ready for use by 2040

By the time it is finished, the new jet will replace the Eurofighter and Rafale aircrafts currently used by the German and French air forces. Although demonstration flights are scheduled for 2025, the plane is not expected to go into use until 2040.

Von der Leyen, who called Wednesday’s announcements an “important step,” said, “we have to get started now if we want to manage it.” Parly said: “This contract is the very first brick in a stupendous building.”

Spain Joins the FCAS

The German defense minister noted that Spain is slated to join the project in the coming months, and a French armed forces representative signaled openness to more European partners getting on board as well.

Airbus and Dassault are the lead contractors for Germany and France, respectively. The Spanish government designated Indra as their national prime contractor last summer, but a work-share agreement between the three companies and their subcontractor clusters has proven elusive.

Spain has lobbied to be treated as an equal partner in the project, both on a government and industry level. Agreements to that effect were signed between the three countries last year.

Airbus Announced Next Step

A Simulation Environment will be jointly developed between the involved companies to ensure the consistency between demonstrators.

The launch of the Demonstrator Phase underlines the political confidence and determination of the FCAS partner nations and the associated industry to move forward and cooperate in a fair and balanced manner. The increased momentum enables industry to deploy the necessary resources and best capabilities to develop this decisive European defence project. FCAS will be the cornerstone project guaranteeing Europe’s future operational, industrial and technological sovereignty.

The next important step in the FCAS programme will be the onboarding of Spain and the involvement of additional suppliers from Phase 1B onwards, which will succeed Phase 1A after its successful conclusion.

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