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February 20, 2020 | International, Aerospace, Naval, Land, C4ISR, Security

Defense Industry Wants To Maintain Momentum For European FCAS

German parliamentary approvals to fund the demonstrators for the European Future Combat Air System (FCAS) have been hailed as a major milestone, yet there appear to be plenty more dramas to come.

Industry had been increasingly impatient over Berlin's political fumbling of support for the initial Phase 1A demonstration work, worth €155 million ($170 million), which is funded equally by Paris and Berlin.

Contracts had been expected at last year's Paris Air Show but did not materialize; even a January deadline agreed to by French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel came and went.

That deadline followed warnings from industry. And at the end of January, the air chiefs of the French, Germany and Spanish air forces wrote jointly in the French newspaper Le Figaro, stressing the importance of the project and warning that it must progress or risk losing momentum. The partner countries want to bring the FCAS into front-line use in 2040.

“This cooperation is essential for the development of competitive European air capabilities to guarantee the security and sovereignty of the countries of Europe,” the air chiefs wrote. “All this while we must intensify our multinational collaboration efforts, in order to encourage the development of a common strategic vision, contributing directly to the defense of Europe.”

In the end, the nod from the Bundestag emerged just hours prior to the release of Airbus' 2019 results on Feb. 13.

The funding pays for the first 18 months of work—Phase 1A—to develop the demonstrators and mature new technologies, and it will support work by prime contractors Dassault and Airbus as well as their partners MTU Aero Engines, MBDA, Safran and Thales.

There will be four strands to the demonstration program, the most significant being the flight-testing of the fighter aircraft technology demonstrator representative of the Next-Generation Fighter (NGF) design, with Dassault acting as prime and Airbus as a main partner.

The program will also deliver remote carriers, the reusable unmanned aircraft systems that will operate alongside the fighter as a loyal wingman or to provide electronic warfare or surveillance capability. Airbus will lead on the development of the remote carriers, with MBDA as a main partner.

Airbus in conjunction with Thales will work on development of the combat cloud network that will connect the NGF with other platforms including the remote carriers as well as other fighters, tankers and intelligence-gathering assets, likely using advanced within- and beyond-line-of-sight communication methods.

Meanwhile, the fighter demonstrator will use an engine featuring technologies planned for the future NGF powerplant. Work on this demonstrator engine-—likely based on the Safran M88 from the Dassault Rafale—will be led by Safran, with MTU as main partner.

Airbus says a simulation environment will be jointly developed by the company as well to “ensure consistency between demonstrators.”

The next step—Phase 1B-—is where the challenges could begin to mount, as it requires considerably more investment than 1A, likely well in excess of €1 billion ($1.1 billion), begging the question: If German politics can hobble progress over investments worth less than €100 million, what would the delays be if the investments required are 3-4 times as much?

The next step—Phase 1B-—is where the challenges could begin to mount, as it requires considerably more investment than 1A, likely well in excess of €1 billion ($1.1 billion), begging the question: If German politics can hobble progress over investments worth less than €100 million, what would the delays be if the investments required are 3-4 times as much?

Phase 1B also will involve the induction of Spanish companies into the program, including Madrid's chosen industry lead Indra, whose role has been protested by Airbus since the decision was announced last September.

“We think it's a mistake to select Indra as the Spanish coordinator for the FCAS,” Airbus CEO Guillaume Faury told journalists, adding that the company lobbied for the decision to be reviewed. He contends that Indra lacks experience in the development of combat aircraft and the systems that will ultimately support the FCAS.

Airbus had been widely expected to lead the program in Spain, given its past experience building the A400M in Seville and performing local assembly of the Eurofighter for the Spanish Air Force.

“This is something we have shared with the Spanish government, and we have offered our hands to reverse the situation and make sure the best support is given from Spain to the FCAS and that Spain is getting the best from the FCAS,” Faury added.

Spain does not seem to be listening, however. On Feb. 18, Madrid announced Spanish industry partners who will begin working on the program in support of joint concept studies with France and Germany before the summer, perhaps as early as May. According to the Spanish defense ministry, Airbus' Spanish business will support development of the fighter and low-observable technologies. ITP Aero, owned by Rolls-Royce, will support the engine development, with work on sensors and systems to be performed by Indra. A partnership of three companies—GMV, Sener Aeroespacial and Tecnobit-Grupo Oesia—will work on the remote carriers.

“This industrial alliance has already been notified to Germany and France . . . so that negotiations can begin to meet the planned objectives and achieve the full integration of Spain into the NGWS [Next-Generation Weapons System] project before the summer of this year,” Spanish defense officials say.

In the meantime, industry is looking for a smooth transition from Phase 1A to 1B in order to meet a target of flying a fighter demonstrator as early as 2026.

“We shouldn't underestimate the huge progress which has been made for a program of that magnitude and complexity,” Faury told Aviation Week. “I am positive and optimistic [based] on the work which has been done over the last two years. We will play the role we think we have to play at each and every milestone of the program.”

Phase 1B is expected to get underway in 2022. Prior to that, the three air chiefs have agreed to try to bring greater convergence between their operational needs and are hoping to sign a document “specifying this common vision” at the ILA Air Show in Berlin in May.

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