STUTTGART, Germany — After the decade that has been the year 2020, it may seem like 2040 is centuries away. But for Airbus, the scheduled in-service date for Europe’s next-generation combat aircraft and weapon system feels just around the corner.

The Future Combat Air System (FCAS) industry partners have made significant progress on the pan-European, multi-system effort despite the hurdles of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, Airbus, along with its co-contractors Dassault Aviation and Indra, face a “very tough roadmap” to finalize system designs, begin preliminary development, launch production, and get the systems into service, said Bruno Fichefeux, FCAS leader for Airbus, during the company’s annual trade media briefing Dec. 9.

The 18-month Joint Concept Study and Phase 1A of the demonstrator portion are progressing well, but the companies need to move quickly to reach key technology maturation phases, he said. “This is a major de-risking and speeding approach towards the future development program, to ensure that we are on time on expectation.”

France, Germany and Spain have teamed up on the FCAS program, which includes seven next-generation technology pillars: a sixth-generation fighter jet, multiple “remote carrier” drones, a next-generation weapon system, a brand new jet engine, advanced sensors and stealth technologies, and an “air combat cloud.”

In September, the nations’ three air forces worked together to down-select the five preferred architectures that will help inform the program’s follow-on phases, Fichefeux said at the virtual briefing.

The goal for 2021 is for FCAS to enter the preliminary demonstrator development phase for the next-generation fighter and the remote carrier aircraft. Those contracts are currently in negotiations, he noted. Starting in 2021, the FCAS will go from spending a “few million” euros to “billions,” he added. “It’s a massive step forward [that] we want to initiate next year.”

Observers can expect to see some major design choices after those negotiations are complete; for example, whether the next-generation fighter will have one or two seats, Fichefeux said.

Airbus’ unmanned aerial systems team has moved forward with efforts related to the remote carrier and manned-unmanned teaming technologies. Jana Rosenmann, the company’s UAS leader, said at the briefing that her team had submitted their proposal for Phase 1B of the FCAS demonstrator portion that is scheduled to begin next year.

The team is studying two remote carrier designs. “We are looking at both a smaller, expendable remote carrier, as well as a larger, conventional-sized remote carrier, looking in the direction of a loyal wingman to fly together with the combat aircraft,” Rosenmann said. Airbus is the lead contractor for the remote carrier pillar.

The program has some new partners on board, Fichefeux shared Wednesday. In April, Airbus teamed up with the German Ministry of Defence for an eight-month pilot program bringing non-traditional startups and research institutes into the FCAS fold.

Eighteen organizations worked on 14 separate program elements, spanning the entire range of technology pillars. Those efforts have led to concrete results, to include a first flight-test-approved launcher of an unmanned aerial system from a transport aircraft; a secure combat cloud demonstrator; and a demonstrator of applied artificial intelligence on radio frequency analysis.

These 18 partners could be picked up for subcontracts later on in the program, Fichefeux noted.

The plan is to “mature these pilots step by step, and then it could develop into real contracting participation within the FCAS development,” he said. “There is a perspective to bring them on board at a later stage.”

Meanwhile, Airbus also announced Wednesday that its Spanish subsidiary was selected as lead contractor for the low-observability pillar of the program. Airbus Spain will also lead Madrid’s contribution to the next-generation fighter pillar. Indra serves as national lead for the entire program since Spain joined FCAS in early 2020, and also heads the sensor pillar while contributing to the combat cloud and simulations efforts.

The finalization of the low-observability contract “completes Spain’s onboarding as an equal nation across all FCAS activities,” Airbus said in a release. “The signature closes a ten-month process of onboarding Spain as the third nation.”

The program will begin testing low-observability technologies early in the demonstrator phase, Fichefeux confirmed. Both the fighter aircraft demonstrator and the remote carrier will have stealth capabilities when they begin flight tests, which are expected as early as 2026. Then the team will need to work on issues such as how to factor in the future engine’s heat signature, and how to integrate sensors and antennae, Fichefeux said. Low-observability “is part of almost all pillars, and the aim of this maturation is to prove” what works and what won’t work, he noted.

Along with a personal deadline, the FCAS program may also face schedule pressure from Europe’s second sixth-generation fighter program. The United Kingdom, Italy and Sweden have teamed up on the Tempest program, with a current goal of delivering new fighter aircraft to the nations’ militaries by 2035.

When asked whether the two fighter programs may converge at some point, Fichefeux noted that that would ultimately be a government decision.

“That is our responsibility, on the industry side, is just not to lose time waiting,” he said. “If the governments want to define a path of convergence, we will support it in due time.”

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.

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