An Update on the Future Combat Air System: December 2020


By Pierre Tran

Paris – Five options for the architecture of a planned Future Combat Air System were handed over in September to the authorities, marking a major step toward definition and development of an ambitious European project, Bruno Fichefeux, head of FCAS at Airbus Defence & Space, said Dec. 9.

“We submitted also our selection, after extensive operational and technical assessment of potential FCAS architecture…in September, the five best architectures,” he told journalists in a livestream link up from Airbus DS office at Manching, southern Germany.

Those five options were selected from 10 architectures, and will be reduced to two by summer next year, said a source with knowledge of the project. The final architecture will be  based on continuous analysis of work on the technology demonstrators.

That overall architecture included the combination of a next generation fighter and remote carrier drones, and will be fundamental for the following phases, Fichefeux said. The air chiefs of France, Germany and Spain – partner nations of the FCAS project – recently “validated” the selection of architecture options.

Those architecture options followed 18 months’ work on a joint concept study, and there is a further year’s work, he said. The companies were in intense talks with governments on the next phase, with work next year worth billions compared to the “few millions” so far.

Fichefeux declined to say how just how many billions.

A parliamentary report, titled 2040: The FCAS Odyssey, said there would be work worth an initial €2 billion ($2.4 billion) under the second phase of a demonstrator contract, with a total €4 billion to be won by 2026, when technology demonstrators were due to fly.

Those amounts were close to the official figures, the source said. There will be one demonstrator contract with two phases spanning 2021 to 2026/7.

That compared to a phase 1A contract on the demonstrators, worth €155 million, signed July 12, shared between six companies and lasting 18 months.  Airbus and Dassault began the joint concept study in February 2019. Indra was working on the study, following Spain’s joining the FCAS project.

“It’s a massive step forward we want to initiate next year with support of the governments,” Fichefeux said. “The timeline is very tight. We need to reach this point of commitment and funding…to give perspective to industry and the program.”

There was a “very tough road map,” consisting of definition, development, production, flight test and entry into service in 2040, he said.

Seven Pillars of Wisdom

The European FCAS plan differed from the UK Tempest fighter jet project as the latter sought to fly a prototype in 2035, effectively the first in series, the source said.

That was distinct from a demonstrator of the FCAS next generation fighter due to fly in 2026, along with other elements of the European project.

The official date for the demonstrators was 2026, but there was scope for slipping to early 2027, the source said.

The FCAS plan was to field a network of present and future fighters, and remote carriers, all linked up to ground, air, sea, and space in a system dubbed multi domain combat cloud.

The partners sought to de-risk and to mature technology before inserting it in development of the new fighter, remote carriers, combat cloud, sensors, and engine, Fichefeux said.

The phase 1A was for demonstration in 2026/27 of seven key elements, namely the new fighter, remote carrier, combat cloud, engine, sensors, low observability and simulation.

The latter was effectively a war game to consider the different performance of the architectures. Along with simulation, there was also work on linking up the seven “pillars” under phase 1A.

Indra has joined Airbus and Dassault on the joint concept study. The Spanish partner will also lead work on sensors, working with Dassault and the German FCMS consortium.

Demonstration of first operational capabilities was due in 2030, with full capabilities and entry into service in 2040, said the Airbus DS presentation.

Full capacity of the demonstrators is expected in 2030, with initial operating capabilities in 2040, the source said.

Airbus, Dassault and other partners were applying a digital design, manufacturing and services approach, helped by Dassault Systèmes, Fichefeux said. The aim was to shorten “feedback loops” and speed up the process. The joint concept study looked at how DDMS could “disrupt” the development phase.

Airbus said Feb. 6 2019 the company would install Dassault Systèmes’ 3Dexperience software “to a move from sequential to parallel development processes.” That was intended to accelerate bringing new products to the market and boost customer service.

Ideas from the civil world

Airbus and the German defense ministry looked to the civil sector for bright ideas in a project dubbed Innovations for FCAS, the company said Dec. 9 in a statement. Eighteen partners including start-ups, small and medium companies, and research institutes, applied themselves in the pilot phase to work on 14 FCAS projects, including combat cloud, connectivity, the new fighter and remote carriers. The ministry funded the project.

On interoperability with the British Tempest fighter, there was need for “common European endeavour,” but it was up to governments to decide, Fichefeux said. For industry, it was important not to lose time.

The communications network in the combat cloud would be critical for “collaborative engagement” with Tempest, FCAS, and Nato forces, pointing up the need for standards and connectivity, he said.

Stealth was significant, a core technology in the demonstrator for the new fighter jet, intended to mature, test and prove in flight. There would be stealth in remote carriers, engine heat signature, sensors and communications in the demonstrator phase.

The budget for stealth in the phase 1A study was fairly small, the source said.

“The irreversible path for FCAS development is flight of the demonstrator in 2026, opening way to development,” he said.

“For that we need speed.

“We need funding and we need a strong political commitment, which we see we have today and need to maintain into the future.”

There has been call for a joint timetable for the FCAS project, amid concern over French and German elections holding up decisions and funding over the next couple of years.

“What worries me more than COVID 19 is the sequence of events,” Eric Trappier, executive chairman of Dassault, told May 14 the defense committee of the lower house National Assembly. Dassault is prime contractor for the fighter jet, the critical element in the next generation weapon system.

“We cannot wait for 2022 to start work on the rest of the program,” he said. “It is just not possible.”