PARIS --- Madrid is expected to formally commit to the French-German FCAS program at the Paris Air Show in mid-June, according to top Airbus executives who also confirmed they have made an offer to replace Spain’s F-18 Hornets with new-build Eurofighters.
Airbus expects Spain to sign a Memorandum of Intent at the Paris Air Show, which “supposes a financial and industrial participation by Spain to the project,” Airbus Defence and Space CEO Dirk Hoke told Spain’s ABC newspaper in a joint interview published Sunday together with the CEO of Airbus Spain, Alberto Gutierrez.
The MoI will follow up on a letter of intent signed in February by Spanish Defense Minister Margarita Robles with her French and German counterparts, Florence Parly and Ursula von der Leyen, and in which Spain expressed its desire to join FCAS.
“We request government support for research and development. But, beyond the current legislature, we need a strategic industrial and defense policy. And Spain cannot stay out of the new European defense programs as, in Europe, we increasingly tend towards a common defense policy," Gutierrez said.
“The goal is to create Europe’s most important military program of the coming decades. It will consist of a sixth-generation fighter, with a ‘combat cloud’ which will integrate all aviation, ground and naval systems into one operation, which will allow fast and clear decision-making,” the two Airbus execs said. “We also want to take advantage of this program to create a common standard for military communications for Europe, and to use artificial intelligence to analyze the scenarios.”
Airbus and France’s Dassault Aviation have joined forces to design this new combat aircraft, which will rival in the future with the US military industry (Boeing and Lockheed Martin). “The objective is not to repeat mistakes of the past. In Europe we cannot have three different fighters as it happened in the 90s with the Eurofighter (Spain, Germany, the United Kingdom and Italy), the Rafale (France) or the Gripen (Sweden)," adds Hoke, keeping the door open for the United Kingdom to join the project.
The Paris Air Show could also be the venue chosen by the four Eurofighter nations to announce they have signed the production contract for the Captor-E AESA radar which they will retrofit to their Tranche 2 and Tranche 3a aircraft. The same radar has also been ordered by Kuwait for the 28 Eurofighters it ordered from Italy, but not to date by the partner nations. No-one could be reached for comment at Leonardo UK, which makes the E-Scan radar, because of a public holiday there.
Two competing programs
But it looks as if Europe will have at least two next-gen fighter programs to compete with US industry, which would have the added benefit of avoiding a monopoly situation, where a single fighter manufacturer would have no competition.
Peter Hultqvist, the Swedish Minister for Defence, confirmed to reporters that talks were ongoing with the UK on including Saab in the Tempest program. Hultqvist added that he "has nothing more to say" on possible collaboration with France or Germany on their competing FCAS project.
At last July’s Farnborough Air Show, the UK Ministry of Defence unveiled Project Tempest, its own next-generation fighter project that it said it would develop alone. But last week, long-speculated Swedish interest for Tempest became official.
Hultqvist's comments came a day after Saab CEO, Håkan Buskhe, said that "it is no secret that the Swedish government would like to work with the UK on the next-generation air combat system" Jane’s Defence Weekly reported from Stockholm May 21.
Eurofighter production winding down
While preparing the next generation of European combat aircraft, Airbus is working to squeeze as much revenue as it can form the Eurofighter program, which is nearing the end of its production run for the four partner nations. The final Eurofighter for the Spanish Air Force is to be delivered in July, Gutierrez said, while the final Eurofighter for Britain’s Royal Air Force made its first flight on May 10 at the BAE Systems plant in Warton.
The Eurofighter consortium is now working to deliver 28 aircraft sold by Italy to Kuwait, which will be the first fitted with the Leonardo E-Scan AESA radar, and 24 sold by the UK to Qatar, for delivery in 2023-24.
Waiting in the wings are a potential German order for 50-60 aircraft to replace the Tornado strike fighters that will be retired by 2025, as well as a long-delayed order for 48 aircraft from Saudi Arabia that is looking increasingly unlikely.
New offer for Spain as upgrade program kicks in
Airbus has made an offer to the Spanish government for a new batch of Eurofighters to replace the 85 Boeing F-18 Hornets currently operated by the Spanish Air Force. Spain will retire 20 Hornets now deployed at Gando air base, on Grand Canaria Island, by 2025, while 65 others based at Torrejon and Saragoza to follow by 2030.
“We are in contact with the Ministry of Defense. It is a sovereign decision for Spain, but I also anticipate that for the Ministry of Defense and the Air Force, the preferred option for the replacement of the F-18s at Gando is Eurofighter,” Gutierrez told ABC.
In parallel, Airbus is preparing to modernize 70 Spanish Eurofighters so as to keep them operationally effective until 2040-2045, when they will be replaced by New-Generation Fighter (NGF) to be developed by Dassault as part of FCAS. Spain has approved €906 million to modernize its Eurofighters.
"The final Eurofighter will be delivered to Spain in July. We will follow on with a reconfiguration of the Tranche 1 aircraft (17 of Spain’s 70 Eurofighters) to replace components that are beginning to become obsolete. There are computers made 15 years ago that have to be updated, and we have to give them the same capabilities as Tranche 2 and Tranche 3 aircraft,” Gutierrez explained.
He also said that Spain’s modernized Tranche 1 aircraft will be fitted with the new E-Scan AESA radar, but although it is reaching the end of development it missed initial delivery in late 2018.