PARIS — The trinational program meant to build a new fighter jet for Europe, along with an array of next-generation systems and weapons, has gained a new partner – to a degree.

Belgium has officially joined the Future Combat Air System (FCAS) program as an observer, the French Ministry of Defense announced June 20. Bringing Brussels onto the team in this capacity will not change the current contracts signed between France, Germany, and Spain, officials said, but rather will allow stakeholders to “imagine” how Belgian industry might eventually contribute to the FCAS program sometime in the future.

It will also accelerate the operational partnership between the four nations’ air forces, the French Armed Forces said in a Tuesday release.

“We are convinced that this collaboration will be fruitful, and will serve the interests of European defense in the context of profound shifts in technology and international security,” the ministry said.

Defense News reported June 16 that Brussels was mulling joining the trinational program, which would result in a slew of next-generation aerospace technologies delivered to the participating nations around 2040, centered around a sixth-generation fighter jet that would eventually replace the participants fleets of Eurofighter Typhoons and Dassault Rafales.

Another benefit of bringing Brussels into the fold would be to develop closer cooperation between the Belgian defense industrial base and the current FCAS suppliers, per the French ministry. Dassault Aviation, Airbus Defense and Space, and Indra Sistemas are the three prime contractors on the program, representing France, Germany, and Spain, respectively.

The role of observer status is one that’s common during the research-and-development phases of programs, Jean-Brice Dumont, Airbus’ executive vice president for military air systems, told reporters on Tuesday.

The distinction of observer means the nation and its industry are not part of the decision-making team for the program, but that “you can know enough of [the program] to prepare a further collaboration” with the current partners, he said at a briefing during the biennial Paris Air Show, held outside of the city.

What does Belgium’s entry mean for the stakeholders at this point in time? “I would say, a bit early to say,” Dumont noted. “I think we’re going to write the history as we move.”

He emphasized that the contracts for the recently launched Phase 1B of the FCAS program, as well as the future Phase 2, have already been signed with the three current partner nations. “So, we are going to execute this contract with three nations.”

Any potential increased role for Belgium in the FCAS program will first need to be defined politically between Paris, Madrid, and Berlin, before an industry contract could be signed, he added.

First established in 2017 between France and Germany, the FCAS program seeks to develop a suite of leading-edge air capabilities by 2040. Spain joined the program in 2020.

It includes seven technology pillars, to include the next-generation fighter – 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.

After nearly two years of delays due to industry workshare disputes, the FCAS prime contractors signed an agreement in December 2022 to move ahead with Phase 1B, during which industry partners will spend the next two years finalizing the program’s architecture.

Phase 1B formally launched this past April, and is scheduled to run until 2025, French Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Stéphane Mille said in a June 8 interview with Defense News. Then, Phase 2 will focus on developing the fighter jet prototype, he said, with a demonstrator flight expected in 2029 – two years later than originally planned.

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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