CONSTANTA, Romania — European nations are pursuing two separate programs to build sixth-generation aircraft and a bevy of advanced systems within the next two decades, but at least one lead Air Force official hopes the efforts will merge.

The Franco-German-Spanish Future Combat Air System, or FCAS, program is about to launch the next phase of its research and development effort this fall, which is around the same time Team Tempest — led by the United Kingdom and including Italy and Sweden — hopes to kick off a new R&D phase.

Both are years away from a flight-ready demonstrator aircraft. In the meantime, the German Air Force chief of staff said he has spoken to his Italian and British counterparts about possibly combining efforts.

“It can be that we go on different tracks. Hopefully we will merge eventually,” Lt. Gen. Ingo Gerhartz said in an exclusive interview with Defense news en route to Berlin, Germany, from Mihail Kogălniceanu International Airport outside of Constanta, Romania.

Gerhartz noted that the operational impetus behind the Tempest program is “exactly the same as what we think will be important in 2040-plus.” Both efforts will result in a sixth-generation fighter jet with new engines, advanced sensors and weapons, increased automation, and the ability to manipulate unmanned systems and coordinate with existing platforms.

Interoperability is at the forefront of European defense officials’ minds — and that of their allies — while debating future weapon systems. Gerhartz noted in a speech at Mihail Kogălniceanu that NATO allies used to run into challenges when they tried to build multinational aircraft, such as the Eurofighter Typhoon during the 1980s.

France eventually opted to leave the Eurofighter Typhoon program to develop its own fighter jet, the Rafale, and the nations that ultimately took ownership of the Typhoons developed separate configurations and systems, which impeded full interoperability.

Now, however, these allies are “striving for commonality,” Gerhartz said in the interview. He noted that during the run-up to the Eurodrone UAV program, each of the four nations of Germany, France, Spain and Italy had their own weapon system in mind. “But in the end, we all agreed on one” design, he noted. “We really have to make sure that we stay in commonality to make maximum use [and] added value out of a common project.”

The idea of Team Tempest and FCAS merging has been brought up before. Dirk Hoke, who until July 1 was CEO of Airbus Defence and Space, noted last summer that Europe “can’t afford two new systems.”

Airbus is serving as Germany’s industry lead for FCAS, while Dassault represents France and Indra leads Spain’s participation.

FCAS observers have questioned whether the French and German industry groups and governments can work through key differences to progress with the program. Dassault and Airbus reached an agreement in April, after multiple reports of issues regarding workshare splits and intellectual property, while the three ministries of defense announced their own trinational deal shortly thereafter.

Germany’s parliament in late June approved funds for FCAS to move into the next two technology phases, 1B and 2. The Bundestag Budget and Defence committees approved a package of about €4.5 billion (U.S. $5.3 billion) for those two phases, which would run between 2021 and 2027, respectively, culminating in a prototype test flight. The so-called FCAS system of systems is scheduled to be operational in 2040.

The German Defence Ministry also requested an additional pot of funds that would supplement any German-specific efforts related to FCAS, such as the development of an avionics test bed, additional satellite communications capabilities and multilayered sensor integration.

Although lawmakers approved funds, additional hurdles remain amid federal elections. If the Green Party sees success in the September elections, as is predicted, its reticence for nuclear weapons and armed drones could severely impact the program, according to the European Council on Foreign Relations.

For some aerospace observers, there is certainly the case for two fighter jets: one pan-European model, and one solely built by the French.

“That’s the way it’s always been … but Brexit has disrupted this template,” said Richard Aboulafia, vice president of analysis for U.S.-based marketing analysis group Teal Group.

If history repeats itself, it would not be surprising if Germany were to eventually join Team Tempest, Aboulafia noted.

Meanwhile, Team Tempest is also hoping to enter its next phase before fall. The United Kingdom, Italy and Sweden signed a memorandum of understanding last year, with the plan to launch an trinational program this summer. U.K. defense officials have also hinted at partnerships with Japan, and have left the door open for other nations to join the program.

BAE Systems leads the industry participation for Tempest, while Leonardo, MBDA and Rolls-Royce are also involved.

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.

More In MilTech