Main Image Credit A model of the Future Combat Air System's Next Generation Fighter. Courtesy of Tiraden
A new European combat aircraft is still likely to emerge from a programme plagued by mismatched national positions, priorities and industrial responsibilities.
In February 2020, France and Germany signed a €150-million investment agreement to fund early prototyping and scoping work on their joint Future Combat Air System (FCAS) project. Spain also officially joined the programme in December 2020, as the prime contractor for low-observability within the consortium. The FCAS programme aims to develop a family of air systems which will work together to generate next-generation combat air capabilities. The main components identified so far are a piloted fighter as the core air vehicle, with additional UAVs, and an advanced ‘combat cloud’ network to ensure connectivity in combat.
However, now there are reports that all is not well, with significant disagreements between the partner countries on industrial workshare, operational priorities and the relationship of the FCAS project to other joint endeavours such as an upgrade programme for the Tiger helicopter gunship.
The FCAS programme began in 2017 with a political decision by President Emmanuel Macron and Chancellor Angela Merkel to revitalise European defence cooperation following the UK’s vote to leave the EU. This high-level political backing for the project has not changed, at least judging by public statements and the smooth passage of funding agreements in both countries. However, there are significant underlying differences between the French and German approaches to the programme. Despite a wide variety of political, industrial and military stakeholder groups with their own distinct viewpoints, there are some identifiable divisions along national lines.
First and foremost, French stakeholders generally view the outcome of the FCAS programme as vital to national security in a way that most German stakeholders do not. France has a strongly established policy of sovereign defence and power projection capabilities; with national security regularly interpreted as requiring kinetic combat operations in the Middle East, North Africa and Sub-Saharan Africa. The Dassault Rafale and preceding series of Mirage combat aircraft are a vital part of this military posture, as well as carrying the airborne component of France’s nuclear deterrent. The Rafale also provides the carrier air wing component of the French Navy’s Charles de Gaulle strike group, providing a globally responsive military capability with significant international political status connotations. Faced with increasingly formidable and proliferating Russian and Chinese integrated air defence systems, as well as an emerging generation of non-Western, stealthy combat aircraft and UAVs, France has pressing operational requirements for a new generation combat aircraft to replace the capabilities currently provided by the Rafale by the late-2030s. As such, three primary mission sets drive French operational requirements for FCAS: the nuclear delivery mission; long-range power-projection (strike) capabilities; and carrier-capable combat air to operate from the successor to the Charles de Gaulle.
Germany shares none of these three requirements, and is politically hostile to the nuclear mission. For German stakeholders, the requirements picture is very different. In simple terms, most German politicians and a majority of the German public do not believe in military forces designed to kill people, as a result of the deep-rooted pacifism at the heart of post-war German identity. Insofar as combat aircraft serve a direct military function, it is generally the defensive counter-air mission against potential threats to German and NATO allies in Europe. In the Eurofighter consortium, this outlook resulted in German resistance to funding multirole (strike) capabilities for the aircraft for more than a decade, leading to significant delays and friction with Italy and the UK. Germany’s continuing membership of the long-standing NATO B-61 free-fall tactical nuclear weapon sharing agreement is also extremely politically contentious. A Bundeswehr request to arm its remotely-piloted UAVs to provide defensive precision air support to its troops was recently blocked by the Green party and Social Democratic Party in the Bundestag. The contrast with French attitudes to the use of force from the air is significant, and contributes to French concerns that their German partners will refuse to fund the sort of capabilities for FCAS which are deemed operationally vital by Paris.
Share and Share Alike
The second major source of potential problems is industrial workshare arrangements. The relationship between the French state and its military aerospace sector, especially Dassault, is a close one. France routinely puts significant diplomatic clout behind Dassault export campaigns, and views the maintenance of a capable sovereign combat air industrial base as an important long term policy objective. For Germany too, the maintenance of a strong industrial base and skilled jobs is a key political consideration, and a far stronger shaping influence on its stance on combat aircraft procurement than operational requirements. However, export controls are likely to prove a major sticking point given Germany’s political reluctance to sell military equipment to governments with poor human rights records. More importantly, due to its long experience designing and producing successful fighter aircraft, as well as strong support from the French government at the political level, Dassault has secured industrial leadership for the development of the core New Generation Fighter (NGF) component of FCAS early on. While unsurprising, this is potentially a major source of difficulties for the programme as currently envisaged, because it leaves Germany’s Airbus Defence and Space with leadership responsibility for the ‘remote carriers’ and ‘combat cloud’ components.
‘Remote carriers’ is a carefully chosen term for UAVs designed to operate alongside the core fighter, and one which deliberately omits what precisely is to be carried – not only sensors but almost certainly weapons. Electronic warfare is a core element in modern militaries, allowing aircraft, ships and ground-based sensors to passively detect, identify and sometimes track enemy assets which emit signals, and actively degrade or deny enemy sensors and communications. The capability of peer states such as Russia and China to disrupt datalink and satellite link communications is already a cause of major concern for NATO, and near-peers such as Iran and North Korea also have potent electronic warfare capabilities. The electronic warfare threat level already makes UAVs unsuitable for warfighting scenarios against a peer or near-peer state unless they can carry out their core mission set automatically during periods when datalinks are either jammed or would expose their position to enemy forces. This trend will only increase between now and 2040. This means that the ‘remote carrier’ component of FCAS must be able to detect, classify, prioritise and engage hostile aircraft and ground-based threats automatically according to pre-programmed rules of engagements and objectives, or be unacceptably vulnerable to hostile forces with moderate electronic warfare capabilities. However, given German political reluctance to even arm traditional remotely piloted UAVs with precision weapons in support of friendly ground forces, their ability to deliver the required degree of lethal autonomy for the remote carriers in FCAS to be effective is highly questionable.
The combat cloud is another problematic area for leading on, since it remains ill defined by all militaries outside of vague doctrinal predictions and glossy industrial diagrams. The holy grail of a self-healing network which is both modular and open enough for a variety of national and allied assets to join and leave it as needed, while also being secure from hostile intrusions is a tall order. Furthermore, simply linking assets is only half the battle, with important decisions about network authority structures, data prioritisation and security access provisions all requiring optimisation around a well-defined set of desired operational outcomes. This is made harder by the fact that FCAS must be nuclear capable to meet French requirements, which brings further security and national oversight and access concerns. From an industrial workshare perspective, it is difficult to quantify such a broad and vaguely defined project, especially against the concrete jobs and export potential of the NGF component being led by Dassault.
Wistfully Looking Elsewhere
Ultimately, the French would probably prefer to be working with the British from an operational requirements perspective, and the Germans with the British from an industrial workshare negotiation perspective. However, this is not the political reality. Prospects for eventual unification between FCAS and the British-Italian Tempest programme depend greatly on the level of duplication of effort on both sides in the early years. France’s well-defined strategic and operational requirements for a new combat air system, and Dassault’s history of producing exclusively French fighter aircraft make the NGF the most assured component of FCAS at present. The German outlook on the combat cloud elements is hard to assess at this stage and the political outlook on the remote carriers dubious. Even if Franco-German cooperation fails, France would almost certainly still produce a new twin-engine combat aircraft in the forty-tonne class, with a reasonable degree of low-observability to radar and other sensors, and capable of nuclear delivery and carrier operations. However, without German financial and industrial contributions, the capability ambition for the NGF itself, and certainly the system of systems intended to be built around it would have to be reduced. Equally, if Germany were to look elsewhere for options, it only really has joining Tempest as a route, which it would be joining late and after the UK and Italy had already allocated the key workshare categories. Therefore, the likelihood that FCAS results in a new European fighter-type combat aircraft by 2040 is high. However, it is less certain that the full system of systems will be realised, as the current national division of responsibilities may prove unsustainable for Germany.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author's, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.
Dr Justin Bronk
Senior Research Fellow, Airpower & Technology