PARIS --- Four years after they first agreed to jointly develop an unmanned combat aircraft, France and Britain will finally launch the demonstration phase of the Future Combat Air System (FCAS) on July 15 at the Farnborough air show, the French defense ministry announced July 10.
The two countries’ defense ministers will sign a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) authorizing a 24-month, €150 million definition phase of the FCAS program, known as FCAS-Demonstration Phase, the French defense ministry announced July 10.
Contracts will be awarded to industry in the autumn, and the project will officially begin in January 2015. Participating companies are Dassault Aviation and BAE Systems for airframe and systems integration; Thales and Selex ES (UK) for sensors and electronics; and Snecma and Rolls-Royce for engine and power systems.
“There is agreement on a two-year concept phase…[and]….a contract could be awarded shortly,” UK Defence Procurement Minister Philip Dunne told reporters at the Eurosatory show here June 19, adding however that “data-sharing agreements have to be competed.”
Physics and aerodynamics being what they are, it is not surprising that Dassault’s Neuron demonstrator (above) and BAE System’s Taranis demonstrator (below) should look the same at first glance. The FCAS will build on knowledge gained on both programs. (photos Dassault and BAE).
BAE and Dassault have been working together for about 18 months to investigate the feasibility of joint development of FCAS, based on their separate but complementary experience in developing unmanned combat air vehicle (UCAV) demonstrators, either alone (BAE with its Taranis) or jointly – Dassault’s Neuron project also included Italy’s Alenia Aermacchi, Sweden’s Saab as well as smaller Greek and Spanish firms.
A major question mark concerns the work-sharing arrangements, as both companies are obviously keen to advance and maintain their technological know-how. This is complicated, again, by their previous work on Taranis and Neuron, which sometimes led them in different directions and which may be difficult to reconcile.
“We have already shared some data, but we haven’t shown everything yet,” Benoît Dussaugey, Dassault Executive Vice-President, International, told Defense-Aerospace.com June 18, adding that full disclosure will not take place before contract award.
However, having successfully managed Neuron on time and on schedule with an international team of partners, Dassault does not believe this aspect will be a show-stopper. "We are confident we will find an agreement with our partners on work-share, subject to sovereign decisions by governments," Dussaugey said.
The program could be opened to additional foreign partners, he adds, on two conditions: "that everyone accepts and respects our common rules, and that the respective governments finance [their share] of the entire phase."
Nonetheless, BAE’s surprise and high-profile unveiling of its Taranis UCAV demonstrator in January, which it had jealously kept under wraps until then, was clearly intended to show its credentials in the lead-up to the FCAS MoU. It is probable that, as in the previous phase, BAE will remain FCAS prime contractor, while France’s defense procurement agency, Direction Générale pour l’Armement (DGA), will act as program executive on behalf of both nations.
Having successive definition and demonstration phases is considered essential for governments to define and harmonize their operational requirements, and for industry to weigh their technical feasibility and cost implications.
For example, will in-flight refueling be required, and if yes using a receptacle or a boom? Where and how should radar antennas be integrated into the airframe? Will FCAS be designed to follow a pre-programmed flight path (which the French favor, as it is impervious to jamming, interception and loss of data-link), or on the contrary be remotely-piloted, as the Royal Air Force favors so as to keep a man permanently in the loop? Should the aircraft be totally silent in terms of radar, radio and IR emissions, or could it resort to jamming? Should it be single- or twin-engined?
Once these basic questions are answered, processed and priced by industry, the logical follow-up would be a demonstration phase, during which the project would be further developed and prototypes or flight test aircraft built, but a decision would not be required before late 2017, which makes it very unlikely that a FCAS could fly before the end of the decade.