On February 14, Spain formally joined the European Future Combat Air System/Système de Combat Aérien Futur (FCAS/SCAF) program. Spain’s defense minister, Margarita Robles, signed the agreement in Brussels with her French and German counterparts, Florence Parly and Ursula von der Leyen. Spain had hitherto held official observer status since the initial Franco-German agreement to launch FCAS/SCAF in July 2017.
FCAS/SCAF is a far-reaching program that encompasses not only a sixth-generation New Generation Fighter (NGF), but also unmanned combat air vehicles. NGF itself may even be unmanned, but that is unlikely, given that both France and Germany have nuclear commitments, for which an on-scene manned control element is desirable. NGF is scheduled to enter service around 2040.
In Spanish service, the notional FCAS/SCAF concept would be expected to replace the Eurofighter Typhoon (as it will in Germany), but in the meantime Spain has an older “legacy” Hornet fleet, and an AV-8B Harrier II fleet that is embarked on board the ski jump-equipped carrier Juan Carlos I. While the Spanish air force is pushing for the acquisition of further Typhoons to begin replacing the Hornets, the Navy requires a STOVL (short takeoff/vertical landing) aircraft in order to operate at sea, if a carrier-borne airpower capability is to be retained at all. At present only the Lockheed Martin F-35B answers the requirement. The air force, too, has also indicated a desire to operate the F-35A land-based version.
With Spain and its Airbus Defence and Space business joining FCAS/SCAF, the two European teams aiming to build a sixth-generation fighter are slowly taking shape. The rival UK-led Team Tempest looks set to be joined by Italy, which already has an industrial presence through Leonardo UK. Other nations reported as having an interest in Tempest include the Netherlands and Sweden, while the UK may offer India a part in the development later this year. Turkey and Japan are also potential partners.
There are some in Europe who suggest that, ultimately, the continent can support only one fighter project and that Tempest and FCAS/SCAF could merge at some point. However, that is threatened by a hard, “no-deal” Brexit in which the UK leaves the European Union without any agreements on defense, security, and industrial collaboration.
Speaking to German newspaper Handelsblatt, the CEO of Airbus Defence and Space, Dirk Hoke, said, “I consider it extremely dangerous to develop a system like FCAS without the British," before going on to state that a hard Brexit "would be fatal for the cooperation."
In the same interview, Hoke noted that Airbus was expecting an order from Germany for additional Typhoons to replace the current Tranche 1 aircraft, which lack many of the capabilities of later machines, and was also hopeful of receiving an order for further Typhoons to replace the Luftwaffe’s Tornados. Germany is currently weighing up the Typhoon against the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet for this requirement, having rejected the F-35A as an option at the end of January.