STUTTGART, Germany — Officials developing the trinational Future Combat Air System (FCAS) program are considering multiple combinations of sixth-generation fighter and remote carrier designs, with the intent to settle on a prototype for each in the next three years.
As the first part of the first phase of the FCAS program wraps up by the end of 2021, France, Germany, and Spain are weighing three designs for the next-generation fighter prototype and six variations of remote carrier systems, French defense officials told reporters at a May 20 press conference. The remote carriers being considered are both small, single-use drones weighing 220 pounds or less, as well as larger, reusable systems that could operate autonomously alongside the fighter jet in a “loyal wingman” capacity.
The two aircraft types are major pillars of the “system of systems” being developed to modernize the three nations’ military capabilities. Plans include an advanced combat cloud and new sensors and stealth technologies along with the new fighter and unmanned systems.
For nearly two years, the three nations and their industrial counterparts have worked to hone the architecture of this major weapons program, and establish working groups for each technology section in an effort to reduce future risk. The next phase, dubbed 1B, is set to begin in 2021, and the development team is looking at five separate combinations of potential jets and drone designs, to ultimately settle on a prototype for each when the phase ends in 2024, said Eva Portier, general weapons engineer and a defense system architect for the French procurement office Direction Générale de l’Armement (DGA).
Officials noted that the design could still fluctuate up until the year 2030, when the manufacturing phase is set to begin. The FCAS team looks to fly a prototype fighter aircraft by 2027, and will pursue testing and evaluation for the following three years. The goal remains to field the entire architecture by 2040.
On Monday, the ministers of defense for each partner nation issued a joint statement that a deal had been reached to pave the way for a demonstrator to fly in 2027. However, the agreement must be approved by the German Bundestag before it can move forward. French officials on Thursday expressed confidence that the deal would be signed by early July.
The nations have agreed to split a cost of 3,5 billion euros (U.S. $4.25 billion) for Phase 1B to run from 2021 to 2024, but Portier declined to share further cost details for Phase 2 of the demonstrator portion, scheduled for 2024 to 2027, or for the entire FCAS program, saying she was not in a position to give those numbers. German defense officials had previously told Defense News that Berlin alone expects to pay more than 4 billion euros ($4.9 billion) for Phases 1B and 2, as envisioned in a so-called Implementing Agreement 3.
Portier confirmed that the issue of so-called specific foreground information (SFI) had been resolved in the agreement announced Monday. She said a “point of equilibrium” had been reached to assure each company involved that their “background” intellectual property—meaning technologies developed internally by each company before the FCAS program—would be sufficiently protected and distinguished from the “foreground” information, meaning technologies developed over the course of the program.
The current Phase 1A, which launched in 2020, was meant as a research phase that would allow the FCAS team to identify potential technology hurdles early on to manage risk, and to “stabilize the industrial organization” of each technology pillar, Portier said. Each nation selected its own industry lead for the program—Dassault representing France, Airbus Defence and Space for Germany, and Indra for Spain.
Portier noted that it was especially important for the FCAS team to reach the agreement to move into the demonstrator phase on time, as Phase 1A is scheduled to wrap up this November, just a couple of months after the German federal election on Sept. 26.
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.