MADRID — The trinational Future Combat Air System program has ambitious plans to provide France, Germany and Spain with a plethora of new capabilities, from fighter jets and drones to sophisticated sensors and stealth technology. For Spain, it’s also a tremendous opportunity to showcase its defense-industrial base on a multinational stage.

The country formally signed onto the Franco-German program in 2019, with the objective of not only equipping its armed forces with the latest generation of weapon systems, but ensuring its own companies receive equal workshare in the program alongside their colleagues from Paris and Berlin, military officials said during the biennial FEINDEF conference in Madrid, Spain.

A key factor in Spain’s decision to participate in the program was to “gain capabilities” and ensure more autonomy for its national industrial base, Spanish Air Force Col. Luis Villar Coloma said during a Wednesday panel at the show.

Coloma leads the Defence Ministry’s sub-directorate for planning, technology and innovation. He noted that the dual-use technologies in development for the Future Combat Air System, or FCAS — meaning they can be used in civilian and military settings — will serve as a “strategic element for national defense and for the national economy.”

As the program tiptoes into the research and development phase — dubbed “1B” and expected to start in 2022 — Spanish companies are integrated into all seven technology pillars.

Indra is the country’s main industry partner, while Dassault represents French companies and Airbus leads Germany’s industrial participation. Indra is also the prime contractor for developing new sensors as well as a partner to build the advanced combat cloud and simulation systems.

Airbus’ Spanish subsidiary represents Madrid in the next-generation fighter pillar and is the overall leader for low-observability/stealth technology. ITP Aero is helping develop the advanced jet engine.

Spain contributes to the remote carrier pillar via the coalition SATNUS, or Spanish Alliance of Technologies for NGWS Unmanned Systems. SATNUS, established in May, includes companies SENER Aerospacial, GMV and Tecnobit-Grupo Oesia.

Additional local companies and subsidiaries are expected to get involved in phases 1B and 2, when the demonstrators will be launched. Those phases are scheduled to run for nearly a decade, with a fighter prototype expected by 2027, and manufacturing slated to begin in 2030 to have an operational “system of systems” online by 2040.

Madrid intends to ensure its industrial base retains at least one-third of the workshare throughout the program’s life cycle. The Defence Ministry has drawn up an industrial and technological plan to better support its base, and spoke to more than 170 companies to frame that plan, said Spanish Army Lt. Col. Jose Manuel Chaves, who supports the ministry’s defense industrial policy division.

Spain’s involvement in the program thus far has employed more than 220 people and supports companies spanning more than 75 percent of the Spanish territory, Chaves noted. That number is expected to grow as the next two phases move along, and Madrid has committed €2.5 billion (U.S. $2.9 billion) to the technology development phase, per the ministry.

For industry leaders, FCAS is a chance for the local enterprise to show the rest of Europe what it’s capable of producing.

There is “tremendous opportunity” for the Spanish workforce to help create the cutting-edge technologies of the future, “if we have the ambition,” said Miguel Angel Morin Martín, Airbus Spain’s FCAS leader. The country boasts “highly qualified engineers” ready and eager to participate, even if they don’t have as much experience in some technological areas as their French and German colleagues, he noted.

“I think FCAS may be the unique opportunity to take up the challenge and to start working,” Morin Martín added.

The technologies and capabilities under development for FCAS have the potential to “completely transform the defense sector” over the next 10 years, said Indra FCAS director Manuel Rodriguez Cerezo.

He acknowledged the road through such a transformation will not be easy, and said the industrial sector is not “naive” about the challenges ahead. But it will be done in the “best spirit of cross-industry collaboration” to make the most of national capabilities and cooperate further with France and Germany “to strengthen European integration together,” he added.

Industry officials expect the much-awaited R&D phase to begin by early 2022. In September, leaders from the three governments formalized an agreement to move ahead to the next stage, but the major industry representatives must also complete their own contract.

Airbus, Dassault and Indra are finalizing that contract, and it should be signed by the end of the year after “fine-tuning” the role of each company within the seven pillars, Rodriguez Cerezo told Defense News at the conference.

“We have to be sure that all the agreements are perfectly established before signing the global document,” he said.

Vivienne Machi is a reporter based in Stuttgart, Germany, contributing to Defense News' European coverage. She previously reported for National Defense Magazine, Defense Daily, Via Satellite, Foreign Policy and the Dayton Daily News. She was named the Defence Media Awards' best young defense journalist in 2020.