MADRID — Spanish defense companies are chomping at the bit to get into the business of building Europe’s next-generation combat aircraft, just as the government is about to formally enter the Franco-German project.

While the extent of the Spanish industry participation in the Future Combat Air System program is still an open question, some of the companies at the inaugural FEINDEF defense expo in Madrid, Spain, are beginning to jockey for position.

Brig Gen. Juan Pablo Sanchez de Lara, chief of the Spanish Air Force’s plans division, told reporters at the expo that industrial cooperation is “essential for us.”

“We are not new in the business,” he said. “Of course Spanish companies are very keen to participate.”

Airbus, for example, which is already a prime contractor besides Dassault from France, is looking to bring into play its local work with the Spanish Air Force for the cockpit design of the future fighter aircraft.

The Spanish air service presented an Airbus-made cockpit prototype — part futuristic lab, part test bed for additional design work — at its booth, pitching it as a contender for the FCAS program. The setup features a large, panoramic screen similar to that in the F-35, sprinkling in some traditional controls beside the pilot.

Officials said the cockpit is the result of previous concept work, concluding that fusing information and commanding nearby drones, for example, are key requirements. Tests are ongoing based on operational vignettes crafted by the Air Force to see how pilots handle workload, stress and the torrent of information thrown at them during flight.

When the first FCAS aircraft takes to the skies around 2040, “the scenarios will be more complex,” Ignacio de Castro Vidal, Airbus Defence and Space future capabilities program manager at the defense giant’s Madrid location, predicted in an interview with Defense News.

That is a reference to the expectation that warfare itself will be more complicated, but it’s also an acknowledgment that the program is designed with so much networked technology that the task of flying the aircraft must be kept manageable.

To increase the ease of use for pilots, the company plans to lean heavily on voice commands to operate the aircraft’s systems, de Castro Vidal said.

Spanish electronics specialist Indra is also eyeing work on elements of the next-gen fighter aircraft.

“Indra is the second provider of avionic systems for the Eurofighter,” Pedro Barco, the company’s director of platforms, wrote in a statement to Defense News. “The experience gained in this project allows us to play a key role as integrator of the system of systems for the FCAS.

“In particular, we have a strong experience in electronic warfare systems, voice and data communications, and radar detection and identification systems.”

Eurofighter Typhoon-maker Airbus has pitched upgraded versions of that jet as a gap filler until the new aircraft is developed and built, saying that the planned upgrades would serve as something of a sandbox to try new air warfare concepts. Spain and Germany fly that aircraft, while France has the Rafale.

As for engines, ITP Aero, based north of Madrid, hopes to share development work with France’s Safran and Germany’s MTU.

“ITP is looking forward to the next step of the program, and we want to be a part of it from the beginning,” Marta Gimeno Garcia-Andrade, director of the company's defense business unit, told Defense News.

She said a key area of expertise for ITP Aero lies in low-pressure turbines and movable, “thrust-vectoring” nozzles.

Several Spanish defense executives at the FEINDEF expo said expect Spain’s formal integration into FCAS to take place at the Paris Air Show in mid-June.

Officials in Germany, however, said earlier this week the exact sequence of extending the program’s framework agreement to include Madrid was still in flux. That is because the German parliament has yet to greenlight funding for an ongoing study contract and because legal issues with the agreement text may not be fully sorted out in time.

Sebastian Sprenger is associate editor for Europe at Defense News, reporting on the state of the defense market in the region, and on U.S.-Europe cooperation and multi-national investments in defense and global security. Previously he served as managing editor for Defense News. He is based in Cologne, Germany.

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