PARIS AIR SHOW NEWS: Europeans Move Forward with 'Sixth-Generation' Fighter

By Jon Harper

Photo: Jon Harper

PARIS — European leaders were on hand at the opening day of this year’s Paris Air Show for the unveiling of a model of the future combat air system, as the initiative transitions into its next phase.

Dassault Aviation and Airbus SE have delivered a joint industrial proposal to the governments of France and Germany for the first demonstrator phase of the program, also known as FCAS, the companies announced June 17.

Mockups of the next-generation fighter and associated unmanned systems called “remote carriers” were revealed during a ceremony led by Dassault Aviation Chairman and CEO Eric Trappier and Airbus Defence and Space CEO Dirk Hoke.

French President Emmanuel Macron, French Minister of the Armed Forces Florence Parly, German Federal Minister of Defence Ursula Von Der Leyen and Spanish Minister of Defence Margarita Robles watched the unveiling at the Le Bourget Airport. During the event, Spain was officially welcomed into the joint development program.

The FCAS program will soon shift from a joint concept phase which began earlier this year to a demonstrator phase, which will run through mid-2021 and “serve as a starting point for demonstrators and technology development for a New Generation Fighter, Remote Carriers and an Air Combat Cloud to fly by 2026,” Dassault and Airbus said in a joint press release.

Contract awards for the demonstrator phase are expected by the end of this year. Dasssault and Airbus will serve as the prime contractors. Teaming agreements for the project include MBDA Systems and Thales. Meanwhile, Safran and MTU will be responsible for developing a new engine, according to the announcement.

“The progress we have achieved on the FCAS program in recent months is remarkable,” Trappier said in a statement. “It will shape Europe’s most decisive military air combat program for the decades to come and turn out a strong move in constructing Europe’s sovereignty.”

A separate press release from Airbus referred to the future platforms as “sixth-generation” systems. The U.S.-built F-35 joint strike fighter and F-22 Raptor are considered fifth-generation aircraft.

The FCAS announcement comes less than a year after the U.K. Defence Ministry unveiled a model and long-term plans for a next-generation fighter known as Tempest at the 2018 Farnborough Air Show.

Here at the Paris Air Show, U.S. officials were asked if they were concerned that the development of new European fighters could reduce allies’ interest in the F-35.

“Writ large, competition is a good thing for air forces,” Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics Will Roper said during a meeting with reporters.

“We've got a fifth-gen system right now. We're very proud of that … but it's also a period where we're modernizing the fighter," he added. "Block 4 [modernization of the F-35] is here upon us. And so the fact that others are looking to next-generation aviation should motivate us to really get after Block 4, to push the envelope and make sure that we modernize this fighter … in a way that keeps pace with the most advanced threats that we face. So competition creates an urgency that's healthy and we welcome it.”

Acting Secretary of the Air Force Matthew Donovan noted that it will take time for other countries to produce these next-generation systems from scratch, and it’s unclear when they would become operational.

“You need to take a look at what's available right,” he said. “They're developing new technologies, which we of course encourage and want to collaborate with them on, but you have to take a look at how long is that going to take when we have fifth-generation airplanes like the F-35 that are operational and flying right now.”

Roper was asked if he considers platforms like the Tempest or FCAS to truly be sixth-generation systems, but he declined to weigh in.

“I don't know enough about them,” he said. “We've had a couple of initial discussions, but that's very different than being given the full technical details. So I don't know if they're very mature designs, … [and] I just can't speak to that.”

Roper said he does not believe the United States is falling behind European nations when it comes to developing cutting-edge aircraft technology.

However, the United States will look for opportunities to collaborate with its European partners on these types of projects, he noted. While that might not mean working together on developing the new airframes, it could include work on subsystems, he noted. Networking and data-sharing capabilities are areas that are ripe for collaboration, he added.

Meanwhile, the Pentagon is pondering its own sixth-generation aircraft.

“We've been discussing inside the Air Force the need to make our next fighter based on digital engineering from design all the way through manufacturing and into sustainment,” Roper said. “That production technology may be the most game-changing component if it allows us to move into a different paradigm of doing rapid design spirals and updates.”

“In addition to looking at a lot of classified capabilities we want to give future warfighters, we also want to give manufacturers a different way of making that cutting-edge technology,” he added. “Expect both of those to be part and parcel of what we bring to the table for sixth-gen.”

Topics: Air Power, Air Force News

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