BERLIN — German defense officials are scrambling to line up parliamentary approval for the next wave of research contracts in the tri-national Future Combat Air System program.
The next phase is slated to begin in January, but German officials said they are still working to finalize contracts with an industry consortium led by Airbus and Dassault. Given that the proposed deals will have to be cleared by the Defence and Budget committees of the Bundestag, that could make for some dicey timing.
“We’ll be cutting it close,” Col. Jörg Rauber, branch chief of the FCAS planning office at the Defence Ministry, told Defense News at the International Fighter Conference in Berlin on Tuesday. He said the plan is to submit the proposal to lawmakers for consideration shortly before Christmas.
Berlin owes €75 million (U.S. $83 million) for the upcoming studies, with the same amounts coming each from France and Spain. The €225 million total package is slated to fund work on the airframe and cockpit design of the next-generation fighter, which is the manned aircraft at the center of the futuristic program. Additional analyses are devoted to the aircraft’s engine, a communications architecture for connecting all elements of the program, very low observability, remote carriers and sensors.
Officials have pumped the brakes on two of the study areas for now — very low observability and sensors — pending the conclusion of a two-year joint concept study, signed in February 2019. That is because officials want to first see sensor integration efforts play out on a European level, and because there are differing opinions regarding the application of very low observability, or a high degree of stealth, in the program, Rauber said.
For example, it might be possible to focus stealth efforts on a particular type of remote carrier, or drone, rather than aiming to make the manned aircraft as stealthy as possible, he explained.
For the French, however, the stealth calculus entails the potential development of a separate, larger combat drone. If the FCAS main fighter is stealthy enough, Paris might forgo the development of such a platform, Maj. Gen. Jean-Pascal Breton, the program lead for the French Air Force, told reporters.
Awarding two research contracts at a later time, rather than along with the January 2020 batch, would still keep the schedule of producing a flyable demonstrator by 2026 on track, according to Rauber.
The FCAS weapon, envisioned as a collection of aircraft, drones, sensors, data links and a “combat cloud” tying it all together, is the designated replacement for Germany's Eurofighter and France's Rafale fleets. Slated to fly by 2040, officials at the conference here presented the image of a program that is just now starting to come together conceptually.
“It’s still, in a way, crystal ball-looking,” said Bruno Fichefeux, the program lead at Airbus.
French and German officials — there was no Spanish representative at the conference — stressed the need for connectivity between the different program elements. If connectivity can be engineered into the program to a sufficient degree, then that would somehow avoid having to fork the design early on to accommodate partner nations’ diverging requirements, the thinking goes.
For example, Breton and Rauber said the French requirement for carrier-based operations, which Germany does not need, can be managed under a common umbrella as long as key elements like propulsion and landing gear are designed to be interchangeable depending on the mission at hand.
According to Rauber, Germany isn’t altogether opposed to having carrier-capable versions of the future plane in its own ranks. Given the bilateral pledge to deepen military cooperation, there is a possibility that German planes could one day be stationed on French ships, he told Defense News.