An Update on the Future Combat Air System: International Fighter Conference 2019


By Robbin Laird

At last year’s International Fighter Conference, the Future Combat Air System or FCAS was introduced as a new Franco-German Initiative.

At this year’s IFC, an update on the program was provided by the French Air Force, the German Ministry of Defence and Airbus Space and Defence.

A key development has been the addition of Spain to the program.

The objective is to replace the current core European industrial produced fighters, the French Rafale and the Eurofighter.

Since last year, industry leaders have been identified for the FCAS program; industrial agreements have been signed; a Joint Concept Study was awarded earlier this year, with the second phase launched this Fall. A Combined Project Team has been established with Spain to join in early 2020.

The focus has been to shape joint understanding of operational needs and national concepts, to identify relevant key operational requirements, to build tools to work at the classified level and above all to build confidence between governments, among governments, and among and with industry.

And the goal is to shape a more integrated approach which can deliver incremental products along the way.

The focus is upon generating new capabilities that will deliver an increasingly connected force able to operate by leveraging data from a “combat cloud” and to do so up to and including contested airspace.

The new fighter needs able to work effectively in a multi-domain environment and to share C2 in the battlespace, one in which situational awareness is shared through the combat cloud.

Clearly, one challenge is to ensure that the current efforts to modernize Eurofighter and Rafale do not go on parallel paths or as one French Air Force officer put the challenge: “We don’t want to diverge before we converge.”

This same French Air Force General highlighted that from the FAF’s perspective they would be flying Rafale for four more decades.

Then the question is how the system of systems was being put in place.

This means that in the decades ahead to being able to operate the new FCAS fighter, a number of key capabilities would need to be delivered.

Among these capabilities: To be able to provide a balance between interoperability and sovereignty; to be able to do collaborative warfighting engaging manned systems with remotes; and to build out a cognitive air battle management system in which new man-machine relationships and new digital transformation was generated.

He highlighted as well the need for France to be able to work with allies to be able to engage and fight in “intense digital conflict” as well.

He argued that collaborative collaboration between manned and unmanned platforms clearly would require mastering how artificial intelligence can be built into new C2 systems.

He saw the F-4 standard of the Rafale as the test bed for a number of these new capabilities going forward for the FAF.

In the presentation by Airbus Defence and Space a key target was seen that by 2025, that significantly greater C2 integration can be generated by the two aircraft.

The objective is to have a new communication standard by 2025-2030.

The French Air Force is focused on the build out of a new variant of the Rafale, the F-4, which will make the aircraft more software upgradeable, and clearly, one objective clearly is to ensure that it can work effectively with the F-35 being introduced into Europe as well.

The French approach also is focused on the F-5 variant of Rafale which is being developed to carry next generation nuclear weapons in support of the evolving capabilities of the French nuclear deterrent.

The very fact that the French Air Force has been tasked to deliver air-delivered weapons in the European theater of operations, makes France a distinctive player in FCAS for sure.

And another distinctive aspect is that the new fighter will need to be operate off of French carriers, and getting a low observable aircraft which by necessity needs to be built from composites to be able to do so is no easy task.

That is why the F-35C is quite different from the F-35A.

As for Eurofighter, briefings were provided on the approach to modernization, which I will discuss in a separate piece, but for the Airbus Defence and Space presenter, the focus was on how Eurofighter as a platform, could become the launch point over time for several of the “technology streams” being generated by FCAS, up to and including manned-unmanned teaming.

That discussion is highlighted in a separate interview with the head of FCAS in Airbus Defence and Space.

A number of the key capabilities which FCAS is targeting are the focus of non-FCAS air forces currently flying fifth-generation aircraft.

Clearly, how the latter sort through how they will do some of the key tasks identified with FCAS will interact with and shape the approach of FCAS itself.

And this cross-learning will be a key driver of change among allied air forces.

Indeed, the combat cloud was introduced in an interview I did with Lt. General (Retired) Deptula, and then head of the Air Combat Command Mike Hostage.

In that interview, the focus was very much on how fifth generation aircraft were part of what Hostage referred to as the combat cloud transition affecting the USAF which he labelled the coming combat cloud.

With allies focused on a common target, namely the next generation connected force, and one operating probably more accurately with combat clouds than a single combat cloud, significant operational experience and investments in new ISR and C2 technologies will lead to significant change in concepts of operations.

FCAS can clearly contribute to this effort, notably, as the effort is defined as incremental in nature, and driven to a significant part of a very busy operational air force, namely the French Air Force.

And FCAS is not being done alone by the FAF and its sister Air Forces and European Industry.

The other partner in the French led approach is clearly the French led NATO Transformation Command.

Even though Norfolk is not close to Berlin, the work of NATO’s Transformation Command clearly is with regard to the FCAS thinking and approach was as the change being driven by fifth generation systems.

Shortly after the Fighter Conference was meeting in Berlin, Col. Cécile Marly, acting branch head for Federated Interoperability at Supreme Allied Command Transformation, was telling a AFCEA’s Military Communications conference in Norfolk, Virginia that the NATO Industry Advisory Group (NIAG) is readying its recommendations on how NATO members can build interoperability into next-generation airpower systems.

“The industry advice is aimed at helping NATO “build standards for tomorrow” to enable “interoperability by design,” rather than as an add-on to incompatible platforms, Marly told AFCEA’s Military Communications conference in Norfolk, Virginia.”

In short, FCAS is a focused European effort but occurring in the context of a broader NATO military transformation effort.


NATO’s Allied Transformation Command: The Challenge of Shaping a Way Ahead

The French Air Force and FCAS: Perspectives from the International Fighter Conference 2018

Extending Combat Air Capabilities With Unmanned Systems: An Airbus Defence and Space Perspective from the International Fighter Conference 2018

The Future Combat Air System: The View From Paris