By Pierre Tran
Paris – A project for a future combat air system (FCAS) backed by France, Germany, and Spain has sparked close interest elsewhere in Europe, the French armed forces minister, Sébastien Lecornu, said Jan. 23.
“There are other European nations knocking at the door,” he told the Association des Journalistes de Défense, a press club, when asked about the FCAS project.
A next generation fighter jet is a key part of FCAS, with Dassault Aviation working as prime contractor, and Airbus Defence and Space as industrial partner. Other core FCAS elements include remote carrier drones and a combat cloud for extended network communications.
The next day, the minister told parliamentarians there could be “good news soon on FCAS,” as other countries “see the program is advancing and want to join,” OpexNews, a specialist newsletter, said on social media.
A spokesman for the minister declined to give further details. Dassault declined comment.
Le Monde ran Jan. 20 an interview with Lecornu, who told the afternoon daily that European nations had shown interest in FCAS, and the project was on the agenda for the Franco-German summit and joint cabinet meeting held Jan. 22, here.
Britain was clearly the highest value potential partner for France, a defense analyst said.
The “real question” is whether the U.K. teamed up with France on FCAS, with other nations ranking on lower standing, the analyst said.
“Dassault would dream of that,” the analyst said. The U.K. had capability that made it the natural partner for France, although the industrial restructuring would be difficult.
The FCAS fighter demonstrator might well be built and flown, but the real question was what happened afterwards – whether the FCAS program will be launched, the analyst said.
The demonstrator will cost relatively little, but the real cost will fall in the following years, running into 10s of billions.
“Of course,” a second analyst said when asked if the U.K. would be a good FCAS partner, pointing to a 1996 fighter project pitched by BAE Systems and Dassault.
The two companies announced plans to work together to build a replacement for the Mirage 2000 and Tornado fighters, but their respective governments went separate ways, leading to the Rafale and Typhoon.
Meanwhile, Britain, Italy, and Japan announced last month their partnership in the global combat air programme (GCAP), opening the way for British companies in the U.K. Tempest project to work with Japanese firms in the F-X fighter program.
“Like minded countries” can buy into GCAP or collaborate on wider capabilities, boosting the export outlook for the fighter, the U.K. government said Dec. 9.
That agreement between London and Tokyo on a new fighter opened up a new area of cooperation, as the two countries have worked together over 10 years on military technology, including missiles, the second analyst said.
Spain joined FCAS after Macron and the then German chancellor, Angela Merkel, launched the project in July 2017 in a bid to boost European strategic autonomy.
On The Mend?
There appeared to be a thawing of relations between Paris and London, following the distinctly frosty Brexit departure from the European Union.
A long awaited Anglo-French summit is due to be held March 10, with French president Emmanuel Macron inviting U.K. prime minister Rishi Sunak to come to France. Defense and security are on the agenda.
However, the French commander in chief said in a Jan. 20 keynote speech at the Mont de Marsan airbase, he was also seeking to deepen “structural partnerships” with Germany, Italy, and Spain. France has just signed a cooperation treaty with Spain, renewing defense ties which dated back to the 1980s, he said.
Britain and France are signatories of the 2010 Lancaster House treaty, intended to boost military and industrial cooperation.
One of the projects under that agreement was a project for an unmanned combat aerial vehicle, dubbed future combat air system – demonstration program, but London cancelled that some time after the 2016 vote for Brexit.
Lecornu’s parliamentary remarks sparked discussion on social media on which countries might join the FCAS project, with Sweden seen as prime suspect.
Saab was the Swedish industrial partner on the demonstrator for a French unmanned combat aerial vehicle, dubbed Neuron, led by Dassault. Other industrial partners were the Spanish Airbus unit, Greek company HAI, Italian firm Leonardo, and Swiss company Ruag.
Sweden has also been a partner on the British Tempest fighter project, but Swedish interest appears to have faded.
Sweden could be a partner with France on submarines, the first analyst said.
In FCAS, there is both a “mutual” cooperative approach between France and Germany in phase 1B, and a more “national” aspect in phase 2, when production gets under way, a senior defense official said. The French air force and Direction Générale de l’Armement procurement office are drawing up technical requirements, as phase 1B gets under way.
Work is ramping up on phase 1B, which includes architecture studies for the demonstrator for the fighter, drones and the cloud, an industry executive said. The planned phase 2 includes development and in the later stage, production of the fighter demonstrator.
The fighter demonstrator is expected to fly 2028/2029, a couple of years later than intended, delayed by tough talks on the phase 1B contract.
At the Franco-German summit, Airbus DS displayed a life-sized model of a concept for a remote carrier drone.
The director of the Airbus FCAS program, Bruno Fichefeux, presented the model to Macron and chancellor Olaf Scholz.
That drone model was presented at the 2019 Paris air show.
The total budget for FCAS phases 1B and 2 is close to €8 billion ($8.7 billion), split between France, Germany, and Spain, comprising €3.2 billion for phase 1B, running some three and a half years, with the balance for phase 2, which is under option.
France and Germany said Jan. 23 in a joint statement in English they would pursue cooperation in capabilities, namely “to complete the major NGWS (next generation weapon system) and MGCS (main ground combat system) capability programmes.
“To continue joint efforts, on a bilateral basis and within the E.U., to support the development of a sovereign and innovative European DTIB (defence technology industrial base), with a special focus on the space domain.”
The summit marked the 60th anniversary of the Franco-German Elysée cooperation treaty.