PARIS and WASHINGTON — If the 2018 Farnborough Airshow was all about the debut of the U.K.'s future sixth-generation fighter jet, the Tempest, then the 2019 Paris Air Show might serve as the limelight for the Franco-German Future Combat Air System.
Early photos from the flight line at Le Bourget show a covered FCAS mock-up ahead of its unveiling by French aerospace firm Dassault on Monday.
Although European companies are to show off their sixth-generation fighter concepts, expect officials from the U.S. Defense Department and its industrial base to keep quiet about their own plans for a follow-on to the F-35.
“I think we have a very strong industrial base that’s bringing lots of new ideas to us,” Ellen Lord, the Pentagon’s acquisition executive, told reporters during a June 6 press conference ahead of the Paris Air Show, which runs June 17-23.
“I know the Air Force has ongoing competitions and a number of things going,” she said, referring to the service’s secretive Next Generation Air Dominance effort. “The manned-unmanned teaming aspect of that will be very, very important as we look at more unmanned systems.”
But Lord was clear that the United States will pursue a solution separate from its allies and partners, saying: “I think that we might have a very good competition there.”
France and Germany envision FCAS as a “sixth-generation” fighter that would have an unprecedented ability to control sensors, drones and weaponry through its advanced network. Both countries in February awarded a $74 million contract to France’s Dassault and Germany’s Airbus to study potential designs for the weapon system, which would fly around 2040.
The Paris Air Show is seen as an opportunity for Franco-German defense firms to make a splash, promoting the emerging technologies that could become part of FCAS to potential customers of the plane.
The big question is whether Dassault and Airbus will be able to drum up the hype that surrounded the Tempest, the U.K. fighter unveiled at last year’s Farnborough Airshow. That jet is intended to be the centerpiece of the U.K.’s new combat air strategy, also signed at Farnborough last year, and will be developed by BAE Systems, Leonardo, MBDA and Rolls-Royce.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Air Force and Navy have kept quiet about their next-generation fighters, both called Next Generation Air Dominance even though they will be separate platforms.
The U.S. Navy is wrapping up an analysis of alternatives on its F/A-XX. Though few details have been revealed, Angie Knappenberger, the Navy’s deputy director of air warfare, said in April that the service may not need a stealthy, penetrating fighter and may prioritize other characteristics.
The U.S. Air Force is also pursuing a “system of systems” approach with its NGAD system similar to France and Germany’s FCAS, though little has been shared about the concept or what platforms, weapons and sensors will be connected to it via the network.
Although the United States and some of its allies in Europe may be developing separate fighters, there could be opportunities for American companies to participate in foreign fighter projects, said Eric Fanning, president and CEO of the Aerospace Industries Association.
“When the playing field is level, American companies do really well, but independent of that there’s already a lot of cooperation,” he said during the press conference. “It really is a global supply chain and a global effort on a lot of these things, even if we don’t move in the direction of cooperation on a large platform.”
The Paris Air Show will likely feature the expected announcements about industrial partnerships and perhaps even some deals for new military aircraft. But as for the actual air show, don’t expect much in terms of seeing those platforms fly.
Unlike the 2017 Paris Air Show, which featured the debut of an aerobatic flight demonstration of the F-35, U.S. military aircraft will not take to the skies this year. Instead, Defense Department aircraft such as the F-35, F-15 jet, KC-46 tanker, P-8 maritime surveillance plane, C-130 Hercules military transporter, and AH-64 Apache and CH-46 Chinook helicopters will all be visible on static display.
More than a hundred commercial and military aircraft will be on display at the air show, but very few military aircraft will have the opportunity to fly. The French Air Force plans to conduct a demonstration with its Rafale fighter jets, and the French Army will fly its NH90 and Eurocopter Tiger helicopters.
Other military aircraft that will conduct flying displays include: Pakistan’s JF-17 Thunder developed jointly with China; Embraer’s KC-390 multimission aircraft; the TAI-AgustaWestland T129 ATAK helicopter; and Russian Helicopters’ Kazan Ansat helo.