Building the FCAS Combat Cloud: Coming to Terms with the 2 Fives – Fifth Gen and 5G


By Robbin Laird

At the heart of the Franco-German launched Future Combat System is the combat cloud.

As Pierre Tran highlighted in his recent article on Thales:

Thales welcomed the French and German launch of a technology demonstrator for a Future Combat Air System, with the electronics company winning a key role, Patrice Caine, chairman and chief executive, said Feb. 26, 2020.

Thales will partner with prime contractor Airbus on work on the “combat cloud,” one of the five key work areas on FCAS, he told a news conference on 2019 financial results.

Launch of the demonstrator program was “great news for Europe,” he said.

“This is a great agreement… with a significant role” for Thales.

The combat cloud is intended to provide an extensive network of communications and command to link up a next generation fighter, remote carrier drones, and other elements in the combat air system.

An initial budget of €14.5 million ($16 million) has been set for work on that combat cloud, news agency AFP reported, specialist publication Journal de l’Aviation said Feb. 20.

Rather than focusing on building a replacement fighter  — although clearly this is being done to hold off the F-35 to the extent possible by a Franco-German program – FCAS is also about being able to build and deploy an integrated combat force.

And this force will be designed from the ground up to encompass technological changes coming to the multi-domain force, such as remotes, both platforms and weapons, as well as the growing role of artificial intelligence within decision making.

There are clearly questions of how feasible a strictly Franco-German program even with the coming of the Spanish is to build, deploy and modernize the FCAS shaped around a combat cloud.

But if we bracket such questions and assume that such a Franco-German inspired combat cloud will be built, the creators and developers of this effort face from the outset the challenge of dealing with, leveraging and coming to terms with the two 5s – fifth generation in the military world and 5G in the commercial world.

Fifth Generation C2/ISR Dynamics

With the building of the CNI and the integrated systems onboard of the F-35, the fifth-generation aircraft is clearly playing a forcing function for reshaping C2/ISR into what can be considered a fifth gen C2/ISR system.

With the MADL wave form and the ability of a four-ship formation of F-35s to integrate as a combat unit at new levels with the 360-degree sensors, sensor fusion and CNI integrability, the four-ship formation of F-35s delivers new capabilities in air combat.

And the operational experience of the F-35 fleet and its impact on the legacy force, lays down the foundation for father transition in multi-domain combat.

It is forging a path to shaping an integrated distributed force which will be built out through new C2/ISR capabilities able to direct the operations of platforms and payloads in an integrated battlespace.

But the tool sets or foundation built to deliver CNI to the fifth gen platform can be considered as key tools sets, or foundational elements which can be leveraged in the build out of an advancing C2/ISR system.

And this advancing system can be seen as enabling the operations of a distributed integrated force.

The distribution of combat power which can be combined through C2/ISR integration allows for a significant transition from a fifth generation enabled legacy force to a force able to be tailored to global crisis management, and to do so as a scalable force.

A key enabler in this evolution will be the proliferation of C2 hubs able to empower distributed force combinations yet able to provide for scalability and integratability to deliver the combat power of a larger combat force.

The 5G Challenge

The FCAS approach is designed NOT to go through the fifth-generation transition but shape a different launch point.

And that launch point needs to come to terms with other big 5, namely, 5 G.

A combat cloud to operate in contested air space must be a low latency system; the 5G will build out low latency systems in the commercial space.

This means that for the FCAS combat cloud to work, it is crucial to determine how Europe will build its 5G system.

This puts into key question the role of the European Union in defense and security.

Rather than worrying about how to use operational military forces, the European Union has a fundamental responsibility to shape robust infrastructure with security built in and providing key elements for 21st century defense infrastructure, including the kind of C2/ISR “highway” which advanced forces will need to use in the direct defense of Europe.

This puts the question of China and its 5G global assault into a key strategic context: Can Europe build a 5G system leveraging technologies already being built by some key European companies, and to find ways to leverage such a European 5G system to enable the building of a FCAS combat cloud?

It is clear that the coming of the 5G revolution is upon us and poses both opportunities and risks for the defense and security systems of the liberal democracies.

The controversary over China’s Huawei 5G systems has highlighted the challenges of simply taking a narrow commercial view of the coming of 5G.

Given the nature of 5G systems, which connect a country’s data and communications system into an information grid, it is not unimportant what happens in the commercial sector with regard to the build out of 5G systems.

Michael Shoebridge, a leading Australian defense analyst, has highlighted the challenge as follows:

A country’s 5G network will be the nervous system that connects its economy, carries its data and for the first time bridges the gap between internet-connected systems and ‘operational technology’ (in places like factories, power stations, utilities, railways and airports) that right now is mainly air-gapped from the internet.

That’s what the long-promised ‘internet of things’ is about. It will also enable telemedicine, driverless cars and drone delivery systems to become realities, with all the economic and security implications this will bring.

So, who can control, distort, disrupt or harvest data from your 5G network becomes more important than for any prior telecom network—4G or fixed line.1

But the significant changes involved with 5G will provide a virtual revolution in tying data with communications into a global IT grid, so it is not enough to highlight the dangers which China poses by marketing its low-cost Huawei solution.

It is crucial for commercial investments be made in the liberal democracies to ensure market competitiveness and even leadership, otherwise the investments being made on the defense side in C2 and related technologies will simply fall behind the dynamics of change unleashed by the 5G revolution.

In short, while all the analyses of the FCAS approach have focused on its launch or its feasibility in terms of the capability of France and Germany to actual build such a program, there is another key aspect: how will the FCAS combat cloud come to terms with the two 5s – fifth generation in the defense domain and 5G in the commercial domain.