An initial framework contract was signed in the first week of December that sees Spain take its place as an equal partner alongside France and Germany across all activities relating to the Future Combat Air System (FCAS, or Système de Combat Aérien du Futur/SCAF). The signature completes a 10-month process to “onboard” Spain into the program in both the ongoing Phase 1A demonstration and the joint concept study phases. Electronics company Indra had earlier been selected by the government to coordinate Spain’s industrial involvement while Airbus Spain will also be involved at a high level.
The demonstrator phase is arranged into seven technology pillars, each of which has a lead company working closely with main partners from the other nations. The centerpiece pillar of FCAS—the New Generation Fighter (NGF)—is being led by Dassault, with Airbus Spain has its principal partner. The teaming arrangement is reversed for the Low Observability pillar, with Airbus Spain leading and Dassault partnering.
Airbus Germany leads the Remote Carrier pillar, which is developing loyal wingmen and smaller unmanned platforms to form the New Generation Weapon System (NGWS) alongside the NGF, partnered with MBDA and a Spanish consortium of GMV, Tecnobit and Sener. Other pillars are: Engine (Safran, with MTU and ITP Aero); Combat Cloud (Airbus Germany, with Thales and Indra); Sensors (Indra, with Thales and FCMS); and Inter-consistency and Simlab, which is a joint effort by national leaders Airbus Germany, Dassault, and Indra.
In terms of progress, Bruno Fichefeux, head of FCAS with Airbus, reported that all milestones have been met to date, despite the difficulties imposed by the Covid-19 pandemic. The team has submitted its five best NGWS architectures for evaluation from an operational standpoint by the three partner air forces.
In 2021, the program expects to experience a major ramp-up in development efforts with more funding. Preliminary designs for both the NGF and Remote Carriers are due to be completed next year. The elements of FCAS are expected to be demonstrated at the pillar level in 2026/27, including flight-testing of the NGF design. From 2030, the demonstrations are due to move into the system-of-systems level, bringing the pillars together in demonstrations exploring facets such as manned-unmanned teaming, Combat Cloud operation, connectivity, and an operational cockpit/enhanced vision system for the NGF.
FCAS technology will also begin to be fielded in existing types such as the Rafale and Typhoon, since these legacy aircraft will also be expected to be fully compatible with the Combat Cloud, as well as providing a vital bridge to FCAS operational capability. Moreover, ensuring interoperability with other NATO and allied assets—including U.S. warplanes and the UK-led Tempest fighter program—and integrated cross-domain operations with space, land, and maritime forces are critical aspects of FCAS. Full operational capability for the system is slated for 2040.
Design and development of FCAS is employing a highly digital approach, drawing in part on experiences with the four-nation Eurodrone unmanned air system program that is nearing a production go-ahead. As part of the development process, the team is aiming to involve SMEs, startups, and academic institutions that can deliver disruptive technology and innovation. Airbus Germany has been running a pilot phase of its Innovations for FCAS (I4FCAS) project, in which 18 non-traditional defense players have been working on 14 separate FCAS-related projects. These are already showing promising results, including a flight-ready launcher that can deploy remote carriers from the A400M airlifter.
Additionally, Airbus Germany is addressing the ethical dimension of the use of artificial intelligence in the FCAS system at an early stage to ensure that the best mission effects can be achieved without affecting the core values of the partner nations. The company is collaborating with the Fraunhofer Institute in this work, which involves both military and civil government stakeholders.