PARIS — European missile-maker MBDA presented new ideas for future air warfare at the Paris Air Show on Monday, as the company straddles the line between supplying a potential United Kingdom-led, sixth-generation fighter and a continental version spearheaded by France, Germany and Spain.
The objective is that these munitions will become part of Europe’s next-generation weapon systems, either within the Franco-German-Spanish Future Combat Air System, Britain’s Tempest program or whatever combination of the two may emerge, company executives said.
Besides the usual suspects of missile applications — deep strike, tactical strike and air-to-air — the category of vehicles for self-protection and combat support is perhaps the most novel. The concept fits into the vision of future combat aircraft relying heavily on flocks of drones feeding the mothership tactical information or running strike missions on its behalf.
A portion of these “enablers” or “remote carriers” is meant to be expendable, while others are valuable enough that losing them should be avoided, according to company officials. The idea behind the expendable ones it that they would be launched ahead of combat aircraft whenever there are air-defense systems that pose a substantial danger to manned planes.
While the drones might be shot down, the hope is they would transmit valuable information about the nature of the enemy air defenses back to the main aircraft before getting hit.
These notional compact carriers, envisioned in the 100- to 200-kilogram class, could be launched from combat or transport aircraft or by surface ships, according to MBDA.
The company is also working on a self-protection missile, though that weapon is so far in the future that no model of it exists. The goal is to develop a kind of last resort for pilots to intercept incoming missiles when non-kinetic countermeasures, such as jamming, have failed.
MBDA’s tactical strike concept envisions using standoff, compact armaments that would be used in a swarm. The Spear, designed for the F-35 and the Eurofighter fighter jets, is expected to be operational in the British Royal Air Force in the next few weeks.
Still under development is the “smart glider," described by executives here as a “standoff, general-purpose, anti-surface pack teaming missile.” Up to 18 of those could be carried by a Rafale combat aircraft, for example. The missile has no propulsion but can glide beyond 100 kilometers to its target, taking out ground-to-air weapons, for example.
The tactical strike and deep strike missiles are each in the early development stage. One is a supersonic missile, the other a subsonic one. The latter would be stealthy, fly low and would typically be used against high-value ground assets such as heavily protected bunkers. The supersonic missile would be used against high-value air assets such as surveillance assets, enemy transport or refueling aircraft, and frigates, and generally take on the destruction of enemy air defenses.
Company officials were somewhat shy to immediately connect the company’s work to the FCAS program out of fear of getting ahead of Dassault Aviation, France’s dominant player in the pan-European project. However, that company’s CEO, Eric Trappier, confirmed later on Monday that a host of suppliers, including MBDA and France’s Thales, had already been officially selected.
As MBDA readies a new lineup of munitions, executives said they are troubled by the prospect of two veritable sixth-generation fighter contenders taking root in Europe: the Tempest and FCAS. The fear is that making compatible arms for these fighters could become a needlessly expensive endeavor, weakening the region’s defense capabilities rather than strengthening them, as leaders here have vowed to do.
Sebastian Sprenger contributed to this article.
Christina Mackenzie was the France correspondent for Defense News.