PARIS --- The 30-odd days between this summer’s two main aviation events -- the Paris Air Show on June 17 and the Royal International Air Tattoo on July 19 – turned into something of an anti-climax, as neither of two widely anticipated events materialized.
As late as mid-April, France and Germany were predicting that two technology demonstrator contracts would be awarded during the Paris Air Show, one to Airbus and Dassault for the New-Generation Fighter aircraft, the central component of their Future Combat Air System (FCAS), and one to MTU Aero and Safran for its engines.
In the event, no contracts were awarded, and observers were left with the promise that both would be before the end of the year. But there was no official explanation for the unexpected delay, and none surfaced during the rest of the summer, even though differences on work-share and exports are the obvious suspects.
The let-down was even more palpable at the Royal International Air Tattoo (RIAT) show in the UK, not only because of the dismal weather but also because the build-up there had been faster and more pronounced: Sweden was going to join Project Tempest, giving a new impetus to the UK initiative to develop a competing next-generation combat aircraft, confusingly also referred to as FCAS.
In the event, it didn’t, and while the British and Swedish defense ministers did sign a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU), there was no joint communiqué, a clear indication of a major disagreement.
Instead, while the UK MoD press release enthused about the MoU’s significance, Sweden issued a lukewarm statement committing “to examine the possibilities for joint development of future combat aircraft capabilities” but cautioning that the MoU “does not entail long-term commitments between the countries” but “offers the opportunity to further insert advanced technologies into JAS 39 Gripen.”
Progress slower than anticipated
That is not to say that no progress was made, just that it is slower than anticipated.
At the Paris Air Show, France and Germany signed on a new national partner, Spain, marking a major advance for their bilateral FCAS program, which we will henceforth refer to as SCAF (Système de Combat Aérien Futur) to avoid any confusion with Project Tempest.
Significantly, Airbus Defence and Space and Dassault Aviation also delivered “a joint industrial proposal to the governments of France and Germany for the first Demonstrator Phase of the Future Combat Air System (FCAS).”
At the show, the two firms also unveiled full-scale models of both their NGT and its associated Remote Carriers – palpable evidence that work is continuing despite the delay in awarding the demonstrator contracts.
There was also a small glimmer of progress at RIAT, however, as the UK Ministry of Defence announced that the Royal Air Force’s Rapid Capabilities Office in April – fully three months earlier -- had awarded contracts to develop a technology demonstrator, named ‘Mosquito’, under the Lightweight Affordable Novel Combat Aircraft (LANCA) programme.
So, while both European combat aircraft programs can point to some progress during the summer, neither fully delivered on the expectations that had been built up.
A silver lining?
Though disappointing in the short term, the lack of more significant progress in both programs may well prove, in retrospect, to be a blessing in disguise.
The initial details that have been released about the different FCAS anticipations, be they from Airbus, BAE Systems, Dassault or Saab, all show a remarkable similarity in that the future fighter is but the sharp end of a very large and complex combat environment without which it will not be able to function at full capability.
All four companies see their future fighter operating in an interconnected operational environment comprising satellites, AEW aircraft, ground-based radars, ISR aircraft, air tankers, all providing ISR data to an NGF that will operate with its unmanned remote carriers (or loyal wingmen), each capable of carrying sensors, jammers or weapons to support the joint mission.
The concept infographics being circulated are so similar as to be virtually interchangeable, indicating that the operational concepts of the four countries – Britain, France, Germany and Spain – are remarkably close. And those of Italy and Sweden cannot be far different, given that their future combat aircraft will likely work together against what are most likely to be common adversaries.
A Common Combat Cloud?
Two different scenarios are foreseen for the next generation of European military aviation: one sees costs forcing European nations to pool their meagre finances to jointly fund and procure a single combat aircraft to replace the Gripen, Typhoon and Rafale that are presently in service.
A second scenario holds that France, Germany and Spain on the one hand, and the UK and Sweden, and possibly Italy as well, could develop two separate programs, the latter more closely aligned with the United States and NATO than the former.
Click on the image to enlarge
Like the infographics circulated by France and Germany about their SCAF next-generation air combat environment, the British Tempest concept envisions a combat cloud populated by a wealth of other aircraft and sensors to support the future RAF fighter. (BAES image)
But the past year has afforded observers the opportunity to realize that fighter aircraft are distinct from, and do not necessarily share the same timeline with, their operational environments, increasingly known as the “combat cloud.”
Another factor to consider is that, while Europe may be able to finance two or perhaps three next-generation combat aircraft, it can neither financially nor operationally afford to develop two competing combat clouds.
This offers a window of opportunity for European nations to team and share the cost of developing a single combat cloud, while allowing each country to develop national components, including fighters, as required by its national sovereignty imperatives.
In other words, Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Spain and Sweden could together develop and fund the architecture and connectivity of a common European Combat Cloud, while countries wishing to do so could develop specialized components as well as new fighter aircraft.
This would allow, for example, Sweden to integrate its GlobalEye AEW aircraft, while France would integrate its E-3F AWACS and Britain its future E-7 Wedgetails, knowing that they would be all interoperable thanks to be interconnectivity of the Combat Cloud.
The same would be true for tankers, satellites, support aircraft and even sensors: all would contribute to the common combat cloud, while allowing each country to operate and integrate the combat aircraft, and the weapons, of its choice.
A major advantage of this concept is that it allows all European countries to jointly fund and develop a common Future Combat Air System which avoids the principal pitfall: giving any one country, or any one combination of countries, a monopoly position which Europe can neither afford nor tolerate.
So, within a future European Common Combat Cloud (CCC), the Royal Air Force could operate its Typhoon combat aircraft and, later, its Tempests; France could integrate its Rafales and Germany its Eurofighters; and later their Next-Generation Fighter; Sweden its Gripen NG and whatever it eventually develops as its replacement, and so on.
The CCC concept allows each country to develop and integrate whatever aircraft and systems it wishes, at the time it chooses, and either alone, or together with one or more allies. Some CCC components, for example remote carriers or sensors, could be common to one, six or a dozen countries, given that all NATO and/or EU members could be allowed access to the European CCC. Including, for example, the US when its aircraft deploy to Europe.
Controlling IP and communications standards
The key to such an ambitious yet pragmatic project is the communication standards and protocols, which should be jointly defined by all participating nations and managed by an agency like the European Defence Agency or OCCAR but, to guarantee autonomy, neither by NATO nor by the European Union.
The EU could clearly grease the wheels of R&D by providing funds from its European Defence Fund but should not have a say in the CCC’s development and operation to ensure it remained a simply technical agency, as far as possible removed from the NATO-EU power plays.
Best of all, once they had joined the “club” and started paying fees, countries could work into the new projects ai their own rhythm, according to their own priorities, and embracing either all of the program or just part of it. Removing the “forced march” aspect of having to follow a common schedule would make the project attractive to all Western European countries, big and small.