Europe On Course for Two Future Combat Programs

 - July 22, 2020, 12:21 PM
Development of two future combat air systems in Europe—the Tempest (illustrated) and SCAF/FCAS—now seems assured in the short term, but long-term success appears more achievable with further investment from additional international partners. (Photo: BAE Systems)

Since the UK announced in July 2018 its Tempest future combat air system (FCAS), which followed the launch of the Franco-German Système de Combat Aérien Futur (SCAF or FCAS) weeks before, speculation about whether Europe can afford two programs of such magnitude has led, in turn, to repeated calls for the two projects to merge.

For now, though, such a harmonization of efforts appears unlikely, at least in the near term. Moreover, as each program progresses further, the stakes involved for both sides increase to the point where conceding defeat carries with it huge penalties that strike hard at the very reasons the projects were launched in the first place, particularly in terms of technological standing in the global defense market and the beneficial effects on national economies and technological capabilities.

“The problem at the European level is that half the sector loses out,” said Douglas Barrie, senior fellow for military aerospace at the International Institute of Strategic Studies during an FIA Connect panel session on Wednesday. For countries that lose out it would be “very damaging” he said, adding that “there’s a very strong national element in all of this.”

That “national element” sees the UK, which leads Tempest, pitted against France, which is the lead nation for SCAF, and neither would likely give up their leadership roles. Robin Southwell, former CEO of Airbus UK, noted that “France and Germany are clear in their direction” and warned that while they might welcome the UK’s involvement, it might be limited. “Involved is a word of many meanings,” he commented.

While in general scope the two competing concepts have great similarities of operational employment—both feature “combat cloud” connectivity and the use of multiple uninhabited “loyal wingmen” or “remote carriers"—there are some differences. For instance, the Tempest might, as some suggest, carry an optionally-crewed capability, whereas SCAF is envisioned for only piloted operations.

If, as appears likely, there are two FCAS programs in Europe, the problem remains that, at present, the huge development costs must be amortized across fewer customers. Achieving the “critical mass” necessary to reduce the individual costs to partner nations would involve taking on more partners. For Tempest, the UK has signed up Italy and Sweden to join in the development, bringing in companies such as Saab, GKN Aerospace Sweden, Leonardo Italy, Elettronica, Avia Aero, and MBDA Italy. Spain has joined France and Germany in their efforts.

Richard Aboulafia, v-p of analysis with the Teal Group, suggested that Tempest appears to be a “more international project” than the SCAF, which he mischievously described as a “Franco-French” program. While Tempest could find traction in nations with fighter development ambitions such as India and Japan, traditional UK partners such as Canada and Australia could also become part of the team. Aboulafia also suggested that the UK’s long-standing defense equipment relations with Saudi Arabia could bring the cash-rich kingdom on board.

Claude Alber, a senior Collins Aerospace executive, offered some middle-ground possibilities, in which partners could co-develop individual technologies while still taking into account differences in operational concepts. In that way, costs could drop for both programs without denting national leadership ambitions at a major program level.

This already is taking place in a fashion with the missile work undertaken by MBDA, which is a major partner in both projects. The new range of weapons under development by the company on both sides of the English Channel is applicable to both Tempest and SCAF systems. The company’s recent success in arming all three European combat aircraft types—Gripen, Rafale, and Typhoon—with the Meteor long-range air-to-air missile is proof that such arrangements can work.

Alber also dismissed any difficulties in divisions of multinational companies working on opposite sides of the Tempest/SCAF divide as they are local product lines developed entirely within the framework of national sovereign intellectual property that exists in their own countries.