STUTTGART, Germany — Over one year later than expected, several leaders of the trinational Future Combat Air System (FCAS) program claim to be on the precipice of finally launching the next work phase, that would eventually lead to a suite of new weapons and systems for France, Germany, and Spain.
Berlin and Madrid announced Nov. 18 that a “political” agreement had been reached to move forward with the next phase of work, known as Phase 1B, after many months of stymied progress. But the silence from third-party Paris has left observers puzzled over where the program truly stands.
“The political agreement for the FCAS is a big step and – especially in these times – an important sign of the excellent cooperation of France, Germany and Spain,” the Spanish and German defense ministries said in identical statements. “It strengthens Europe’s military capabilities and ensures important know-how for our industry and, more broadly, for European industry.”
Similarly, Airbus Defence and Space – which leads the German industrial involvement in the program – and Indra, representing Spain, released identical statements on Nov. 18 lauding the progress.
“We can confirm that discussions among industry and governments on the next phase of FCAS have concluded, which represents a big step forward for this European flagship defense program,” the companies said. But the actual contract between the three industry players has yet to be signed, they acknowledged, adding: “Now, a number of formal steps in the respective countries have to be taken in order to allow a speedy contract signature.”
Meanwhile, a spokesperson for Dassault Aviation – France’s industry lead – declined to respond to questions in a Nov. 21 email to Defense News, and the company writ large has not released any formal statements on the program’s progress, reflecting its nation’s own lack of acknowledgement.
Dassault CEO Eric Trappier confirmed on Monday that an industry contract between Dassault and Airbus has yet to be signed.
Speaking on France’s RTL Radio, Trappier called Friday’s statement “a pseudo-political announcement” driven by potential leaks regarding Germany’s approvals on the project. Asked whether an industry contract may be signed this week, Trappier said only, “We’ll see.”
The FCAS program – also known as SCAF, for its French name “système de combat aérien du futur” – was announced in 2017 by then-German chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron, and Spain was introduced as a third partner in 2019.
The effort consists of seven technology “pillars,” including a sixth-generation fighter aircraft – which will replace the participants’ fleets of Dassault Rafale and Eurofighter Typhoon aircraft – a new engine for the fighter jet, a next-generation weapon system, new drones, advanced sensors and stealth technology, and an air combat cloud network. Phase 1A, launched in 2020 as a research phase that would allow the FCAS team to identify potential technology hurdles early on to manage risk, was due to end in early 2021.
Phase 1B, also known as the “pre-demonstrator” phase, would focus on developing the fighter prototype ahead of a target flight date in 2027, with three years of testing and evaluation to follow before the manufacturing phase begins in 2030. Stakeholders hoped to field the entire architecture by 2040. But months of industrial infighting over workshare agreements have placed the program on the backburner, until, perhaps, this week.
Trappier has long been vocal that the Phase 1B launch delays stem from workshare agreements between his company and Airbus, specifically related to the program’s centerpiece, the next-generation fighter (NGF) aircraft. While Dassault is the lead contractor on that element, Airbus has advocated for a greater role on the aircraft, and sees itself “as a main partner, at eye level, and not just a supplier,” the company said in a July statement.
Dassault must remain the “uncontested leader” of the NGF, Trappier has said in previous statements. He remained coy on Monday as to when an FCAS demonstrator aircraft would finally be revealed. While the goal was to have a prototype aircraft flying by 2027, the Phase 1B delays have pushed that timeline back by two years, he has previously said.
“At some point, we’ll need an aircraft that will replace our current aircraft,” he told RTL. “But effectively, the Rafale has a long life ahead of it.”
In a Nov. 21 statement to Defense News, the Spanish Ministry of Defense asserted there was a “clear track” for the continuation of the FCAS program.
Noting that the program is funded equally by the three nations, Madrid said it had earmarked about €525.7 million ($540 million) for FCAS in its 2023 budget, and a total of €2.5 billion ($2.57 billion) for the overall program. French officials previously told journalists that Phase 1B would cost around €3.5 billion ($3.6 billion) for work completed between 2021 and 2024, split three ways. Paris had earmarked €287.2 million in its 2022 defense budget for ongoing studies and research related to FCAS, but pointedly did not reveal how much funding would be included in its 2023 budget, released this past September.
Time is of the essence
The pressure continues to grow for the FCAS industry representatives to sign a deal imminently. Germany’s budgetary committee will soon meet for the last time before the new year, and Berlin is anxious to ensure the committee approves the contract details before its session ends.
The German Ministry of Defense’s statement said the conclusion of “political talks” means the Bundestag, Germany’s parliament, can now take up the FCAS project for funding deliberations. “The necessary steps can now be taken in order to be able to submit the documents to the Budget Committee for information in a timely manner,” the ministry said.
But that can be interpreted as pressure on Berlin’s and Airbus’ side to get Paris, and Dassault, to finalize the agreement as soon as possible, an industry source, who requested anonymity while discussing internal deliberations, told Defense News. If the budgetary committee doesn’t give the green light to unlock the FCAS funds before the end of the year, that means more months of stagnation as Europe’s governments shut down for the winter holidays.
Meanwhile, French Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne is due to visit German Chancellor Olaf Scholz on Nov. 25, which would be an opportune time for an official contract signing announcement, the industry source noted.
Observers have long made comparisons of the industry infighting between the nascent next-generation “systems of systems” program, and the unravelings of the 1980s joint European fighter program that ultimately led to German, the United Kingdom, and Italy developing the Eurofighter Typhoon, and France building the Rafale.
The concern now is that history may be repeating itself, and what progress is made on FCAS over the next three or so years will be an indicator, the industry source said.
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.