WASHINGTON ― After years of industry talk about what comes after the current generation of fighter aircraft, 2018 may mark a turning point when projects finally get underway.

If all goes according to plan ― arguably a rarity among Western defense projects ― NATO nations could be flying up to four new fighter designs in the coming decades. But whether those countries are willing to sacrifice commonality to field their own domestically produced fighters is unclear.

A partnership between France and Germany, the Future Combat Air System aims to replace the Eurofighter Typhoon in Germany and the Rafale aircraft in France. The new aircraft are envisioned to hit the skies by 2040.

France is expected to take the lead in managing the bilateral program. Dassault Aviation is expected to be the prime contractor on the new fighter, and there is discussion on which company will take the lead on the overall system of systems, with Thales seen as a candidate, a defense source said.

The project is seen as a key test of how well the Franco-German defense industrial bases can work together, and particularly how effective they can be after Britain leaves the European Union.

Meanwhile, the U.K. is expected to use the Farnborough Airshow to unveil a road map toward an eventual new fighter design. While that will mark just the first step toward a potential new plane, expect British defense firms to start positioning themselves for pieces of the production work during the air show.

Whether the market can sustain two next-generation European fighters, plus whatever other designs come out of the U.S. or other nations in the coming decades, is another question entirely ― a view shared by Dirk Hoke, the CEO of Airbus Defence and Space.

“I strongly believe it has to be a full European solution [for a new combat air program]. Two or more different solutions is not sustainable, it will bring Europe into the second league,” Hoke told reporters July 6.

A candidate design of the Future Combat Air System is presented during a ceremony on Nov. 5, 2014, at Dassault Aviation headquarters in Saint-Cloud, in the suburbs of Paris. (Eric Piermont/AFP via Getty Images)
A candidate design of the Future Combat Air System is presented during a ceremony on Nov. 5, 2014, at Dassault Aviation headquarters in Saint-Cloud, in the suburbs of Paris. (Eric Piermont/AFP via Getty Images)

Indeed, the economics may mean that whatever emerges from Europe is more of a comparable jet to the F-35 than a true leap ahead in technology, warned Richard Aboulafia, an analyst with the Teal Group.

“They’d be doing seriously well to be able to afford a fifth-generation development effort, let alone a sixth-gen,” Aboulafia said. “Even well-funded [ministries of defense] would have a hard time skipping a generation, let alone MoDs which usually give very low priority to R&D programs even in good times. Unless they find tens of billions in R&D dollars, they’re just industrial-base scaffolding.”

Put another way: “There’s economic logic, and then there’s strategic logic, and the two don’t necessarily walk hand in hand,” said analyst Byron Callan of Capital Alpha Partners.

However, Douglas Barrie of the International Institute of Strategic Studies doesn’t see why politics and real requirements can’t complement each other. “The requirements are genuine, and there is also clearly a political dimension. Defense industrial capabilities are important to Europe,” he said.

Partners or foes?

Given the importance of industrial ties to both programs, an early key question is what companies might team up with which program.

Paul Everitt, the CEO of U.K. defense and aerospace trade organization ADS, told Defense News in June that the jointly funded government-industry UK Defence Solutions Centre has already been tasked with looking at potential international partners and future customers for a sixth-generation jet.

The “politics of the situation are if we want to interest potential partners or even customers, we are going to have to demonstrate we have something that’s real,” Everitt said.

While France has not ruled out that the U.K. could join its fighter program in the future, internal politics in both nations probably render that unlikely. And from an industrial-base position, that could be difficult, warns Aboulafia.

“France specializes in Franco-French cooperation. Dassault will be airframe prime; Thales will be avionics/radar/EW prime; Safran will be engine prime,” he said. “Where’s the scope for cooperation? That’s why France wouldn’t join, or wasn’t included, in the Tornado and Eurofighter programs.”

If the U.K. does try to launch its own program, it will need to find a partner for the project to survive cost and demand, said Callan.

“For a replacement of a new multirole heavy airplane, you have to be looking at a total buy of 600 or more to justify that total investment,” he added.

Other options do exist. Japan and South Korea are both working on indigenous fighter designs, while BAE Systems already has a deal with Turkey to help develop the TF-X fighter program being pursued there. However, Turkey’s recent decision to purchase a Russian air defense system could nix future cooperation, as it has already threatened their F-35 procurement plans.

But a partner may lie closer to Europe. The Financial Times reported July 5 that the U.K. has contacted Sweden, with its Saab industrial base, about a potential partnership. Saab has had success positioning its lightweight, multirole Gripen fighters as an alternative to the more expensive jets (Typhoon, Rafale, F/A-18). And if Britain goes for something smaller than the F-35 for its design, Sweden may be a natural industrial partner.

The good news for both efforts: The time frame on the program means there isn’t a rush to sign partners right away, Barrie explained.

“It’s worth keeping in mind it took about a decade from the mid-1970s to the mid-1980s for Europe to sort out its previous round of combat aircraft developments,” he noted. “Irrespective of the tie-ups we see now, I doubt very much they’ll reflect the final team ― or teams ― when the pieces stop moving.”

Potential capabilities

What these systems could do or look like is very much up in the air. But there are some clues early on.

Reporters who were briefed by BAE Systems on July 5 took to Twitter to describe what they saw of two proposed designs for a new aircraft, including both a traditional fighter design like the F-35 and a delta-wing design, more similar to some of the unmanned systems seen in the U.S. and Europe. Both designs featured dual engines.

France’s air combat system will include the new Franco-German fighter, but also includes future cruise missiles and swarms of drones, which will all be interconnected on a fast-evolving architecture.

The air combat system is planned to be a European system of systems, connecting up with a number of platforms, and hooking up with various command and communication platforms. An audiovisual network will allow all the main players “to work directly hand in hand” on designing the air combat system, the French Armed Forces Ministry said.

That “system of systems” approach lines up nicely with the biggest wild card in all of this: America.

Both the U.S. Air Force and U.S. Navy are pursuing sixth-generation fighter systems. In 2016, the Air Force unveiled its “Air Superiority 2030” study, which posited that although the service would need a new air superiority fighter jet — called Penetrating Counter Air, or PCA — as soon as the 2030s, it would be just as important that the new plane fit into a “family of systems” of space, cyber, electronic warfare and other enabling technologies.

However, Air Force officials have also backed away from discussions of a next-generation fighter in favor of the “family of systems” aspect.

“When you look at — through the lens of the network — and you look at air superiority as a mission, as a family-of-systems approach, you can see why you don’t hear me talking a lot about a replacement, A for B,” Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Dave Goldfein told Defense News in March.

The U.S. Navy has largely kept its head down about its next-generation program, aside from tacit admissions that it is unlikely to be some sort of joint program with the Air Force.

However, there may be some connective tissue there; notably, the Air Force intends to complete its analysis of alternatives in the summer of 2018, with the Navy completing its equivalent in mid-2019, per the Pentagon’s 30-year aviation plan.

Hence, there may well be some shared technologies between the two, including things like directed energy or artificial intelligence, which brings back the core question of what a next-generation fighter looks like, and if it’s as much a fighter plane as a hub for sensors and “loyal wingman” drones.

But while the concepts might be similar to what is going on in Europe, an F-35 redux backed by industrial participation across the continents is seen as unlikely.

“This definitely seems to be Europe pushing ahead on its own without involvement of a U.S. team or U.S. cooperation,” Callan said.

“Just given tone and tenor of the current state of trans-Atlantic relations, the trade disputes, the real difference in policies, I’d be shocked if there was a reversal which brings the U.S. into these European efforts, or that the U.S. would try to bring Europe into its sixth-gen aircraft plans.”

Pierre Tran in France, Andrew Chuter in London and Valerie Insinna in Washington contributed to this report.