An Update on the Future Combat Air System: Paris Air Show 2023 Update


By Pierre Tran

Paris – Belgium has joined as an observer to the Future Combat Air System (FCAS), adding a fourth nation to a partnership which bears French ambitions to boost European defense, amid perception of a leadership competition between France and Germany.

“The participation of Belgium as observer will increase the European dimension in the FCAS program,” the French armed forces ministry said in a June 20 statement.

“France, as the project leader, as well as Germany and Spain recognize the Belgian investment in progress in technology and innovation,” the ministry said.

President Emmanuel Macron broke the news the day before, announcing the three partner nations had accepted Belgium’s request to join the FCAS project.

The French head of state was speaking at a high level conference on European air defense and anti-missile strategy, after inaugurating the Paris air show under blazing sun. Macron flew to the show in Le Bourget, in the northern suburbs, in the navy’s new medium helicopter, Airbus Helicopters H160.

The FCAS program will speed up operational links between the air forces of the four nations, the ministry said, and boost cooperation between the Belgian defense and technology industrial base and the partners working on the combat air system.

Belgium’s entry as observer rather than full partner stemmed from being late to the party. The industrial partners signed in December a €3.2 billion ($3.5 billion) contract for phase 1B studies on FCAS architecture, setting out work share for three years to the end of 2025.

There is an option for phase two, bringing the total value of work to some €8 billion, with technology demonstrators for a fighter and remote carrier drones to fly by 2028/2029.

It remained to be seen when Belgium fully joined the project and its aerospace companies  receive some of the highly valued work.

Belgium Seeks Partnership

“Belgium has a strong aeronautics sector,” a French defense analyst said, and FCAS offered work to make up for a lack of Belgian work share on the U.S. F-35 fighter. Belgian companies would likely work as subcontractors on FCAS, rather than prime contractors.

Belgium and France were close partners, the analyst said, with the former ordering the French Jaguar combat and reconnaissance vehicle and Griffon multirole troop carrier in a €1.5 billion deal for its CaMo motorized capability program.

Asked about Belgium joining FCAS, the executive chairman of Dassault Aviation, Eric Trappier, said June 20, “That’s fine. An observer just looks, but does not touch anything.

“We’ll see,” he said, when asked about what happens when Belgium won full partnership.

Trappier has made clear his opposition to Belgium joining FCAS, as Brussels had chosen the U.S. F-35 fighter over European rivals, Eurofighter Typhoon and Rafale.

The Dassault chief executive also objected to redistribution of work to Belgian companies once partner status was granted, as that was seen as taking jobs from French firms.

Belgium welcomed the shift in European military and industrial policy, pointing up hopes of  support for its arms and aerospace sector.

“As a country with an excellent defense, aerospace and space industry, we could not miss this opportunity,” the Belgian defense minister, Ludivine Dedonder, said on Monday evening, Belga new agency reported.

Belgian prime minister Alexander De Croo said, “I am delighted with this decision, which is fully in line with the industrial policy we are pursuing and will also strengthen European defense.”

Observer status was due to run six to 12 months, and allowed exchange of information with the partners to allow Belgian companies to fit into the project, Reuters reported June 19.

European Computer Clouds

Trappier was speaking on the sidelines of a press conference on the launch by the aircraft company of a commercial offering of a European sovereign cloud computing service with Dassault Systèmes, its sister company in the family held Groupe Industriel Marcel Dassault.

“France and Europe need to build up a sovereign cloud capability, so that they can develop collaborative defense programs with the best possible functionality,” he said.

The sovereignty issue arose from storing sensitive data on secure computer clouds, protected from cyber attacks, he said, and French and European companies and public institutions should not rely on U.S. firms such as Amazon, Google, and Microsoft to house their data.

The aircraft company was using Dassault Systèmes’s 3DExperience software to share data with partners on the new generation fighter in FCAS, Trappier said, pointing up the importance of European autonomy and sovereignty.

Charles Edelstenne, former finance director and executive chairman of the aircraft company, set up Dassault Systèmes, which built computer-aided design and manufacturing software.

Dassault Aviation is prime contractor on the new generation fighter (NGF) in FCAS, with Airbus Defence and Space and Indra as respectively German and Spanish industrial partners.

Airbus DS on Command and Control

Airbus Defence and Space had a small chalet dedicated to FCAS at the air show, the first exhibition after a four year break due to the covid health crisis.

The Airbus DS director for FCAS, Bruno Fichefeux, showed June 19 a video presentation pointing up the importance of the concept for battle management through a distributed network of command and control (C2).

The simulation showed a combat cloud system which linked up fighter cockpit, flying command center on a multirole tanker transport (MRTT) aircraft, the medium-altitude, long-endurance drone dubbed Eurodrone, and remote carrier drones.

These crewed and uncrewed aircraft and drones were plugged into a multi-domain network with an “interdependency” of sensors, and linking up satellite, radar, frigate, and artillery.

A distributed approach would allow the tanker aircraft to withdraw from providing C2, and hand over mission management to a fighter pilot, flying while relying on a “harmonization” of the aircraft’s avionics and mission systems, helped by artificial intelligence.

That distributed combat cloud was a “huge challenge,” Fichefeux said. Airbus DS, Thales and Indra were working on the cloud project, which should be interoperable with the Global Combat Air Program (GCAP) and the U.S. Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) fighter.

Britain, Italy and Japan are partners on the former, based on the U.K. Tempest fighter project.

Airbus had some 400-450 staff working on FCAS and that was expected to rise to 800, following start of phase 1B studies.

Fichefeux, 41, said the company was recruiting young engineers, and there would be 2,000 working in the three partner countries for some time to come.


Over at the MBDA chalet, there was its Orchestrike concept, which proposed remote carriers (RC) drones capable of switching missions in flight if the enemy “popped up” and destroyed some of the drones. Those RCs still flying would have onboard AI to inform the fighter pilot of options for re-assigning drones to hit the key targets.

Sweden Has Its Own Timeline

Meanwhile for Sweden, the priorities were development and procurement of the Gripen E fighter, with studies due to start soon on the next generation fighter which will succeed the Gripen,  said Brigadier General Lars Helmrich, director of the air and space systems division at the FMV procurement office.

That focus on the Gripen E version and upgrades of the present C/D model meant Sweden was “out of the timeline” for joining the FCAS and GCAP projects, he told reporters June 18 at a meeting of the Swedish Air Force Fan Club.

Ramp Up

There has been a “ramp up,” major general Jean-Luc Moritz, head of the French air force team on the FCAS project, told journalists June 20 at the air show.

“It’s working well,” he said.

The operational teams were working on a short list of system architectures, seeking to assign missions to fighters and remote carriers, with a final selection in 2025, he said.

The challenge is to be innovative and disruptive, he said, and achieve superiority not just in technology but tactical combat operations.

In the overall FCAS project, each of the partner nations will take a national approach with  the new generation and legacy fighters, while sharing the one combat cloud. For France, the new fighter and legacy Rafale, aircraft carrier, and AWACS spy planes will plug into the cloud system, while Germany will plug its own aircraft into the shared network.

There will be European cooperation in sharing communications, software and AI, while at the tactical level there will be share of data, as seen in the allied Hamilton operation in 2018.  Interoperability could be seen in the Hamilton mission, with two French AWACS planes providing command and control for British, French and U.S. forces to hit Syrian chemical warfare sites with air and sea-launched cruise missiles.

“I have a dream,” Moritz said, that the French new fighter would be capable of flying with U.S. collaborative combat aircraft, or combat drones, and Tempest and NGAD fighters.

If there were a lack of interconnectivity, as is the case with the F-35, then the prospect would be allies flying in three combat clouds, “side by side,” he said.

The French, German and Italian air chiefs signed June 21 an agreement on collaborative air warfare in the FCAS project, setting out the principle the new generation fighter will be the command fighter, with the pilot having the key role of command and control.

“FCAS is structural, indispensable, ambitious and emblematic,” Moritz said. Those initials were also those of salon international de l’aéronautique et de l’espace, the official French name for the Paris air show.

However, there was also downbeat sentiment on FCAS.

“FCAS has been the disappointment of the 2023 Paris Air Show,” said a report from equity research firm Agency Partners. “The unattended, rather crude, mock-up on a plinth outside the main halls has given the programme the unfortunate monicker of the “Forlorn Combat Air System” at the show.”

Call for a European Approach

Meanwhile, back on air defense and anti-missile strategy, the conference pointed up the importance of a broad European approach rather than a fragmented, national plan, said an analyst who attended the open session at the air show.

Perhaps the real issue was rivalry between France or Germany in taking the leading role in European defense, the analyst said, with that competition for leadership underpinning  Berlin’s anti-missile project, dubbed European Sky Shield Initiative.

That system will rely on the German Diehl Iris-T, U.S. Raytheon Patriot, and Israeli IAI Arrow 3 missiles for hitting incoming missiles at short, medium and long range.

What irks Paris is Berlin’s perceived sin of omission, namely failing to include the Franco-Italian SAMP/T, equipped with MBDA Aster missile and Thales radar.

Macron’s holding a conference with the Paris air show, inviting senior European Union and Nato officials, and ministers from some 20 European nations was a call for a European approach to strategy, operations, and industry.

“It (the conference) shows the determination of European nations to conduct a deep reflection on a major issue of strategic importance for the security of the continent,” the French defense ministry said in a statement.

The call for a cooperative approach was in part a response to the war in Ukraine, but could  also be Paris responding to Berlin’s perceived break-away move with its Sky Shield, seen as an unspoken claim for European leadership.

On the sidelines of that conference, France signed a letter of intent with Belgium, Cyprus, Estonia, and Hungary for a bulk order of maybe more than 1,000 Mistral short range missiles, worth more than €500 million, the ministry said.

Again, that group order for a French missile could be seen as a riposte to Germany’s casting aside the Franco-Italian SAMP/T, a medium range missile.

The conference also pointed up the importance of cooperation between France, Germany, Italy, and the Netherlands on the HYDIS project, the ministry said.

HYDIS is the Hypersonic Defense Interceptor Study, backed by the EU’s European Defense Fund, which will provide €80 million for work on a weapon to hit a hypersonic missile. HYDIS is based on MBDA’s Aquila missile concept, a three-stage model of which stood on display outside its air show chalet. The missile company has teamed up with 19 partner companies and 30 subcontractors from 14 European nations  to develop the Aquila concept.

Photos credited to Paul Grayson