GLOBAL DEFENSE MARKET
PARIS AIR SHOW NEWS: Europe’s Next-Gen Jet Fighter Makes Little Progress in Four Years
PARIS — High above La Bourget Airport north of Paris, a Dassault Aviation Rafale jet fighter on day one of the Paris Air Show carried out a series of maneuvers to the delight of the crowds on the tarmac, who captured every moment with their camera phones as it roared by.
It was only four years ago on day one of the last Paris Air Show when the leaders and captains of industry from three nations with great fanfare announced that they would be working together on a sixth-generation aircraft to replace the Rafale, along with the Eurofighter Typhoon.
France, Germany and Spain and aviation industry giants Airbus and Dassault would work together to build a European-made, next-generation jet fighter called the Future Combat Air System. A mock-up of the jet fighter was placed outside the Dassault chalet.
But after nearly four years of disagreements between the three nations and the two major contractors, almost nothing has been accomplished.
Don’t call it a “program,” it hasn’t even reached that status yet, Eric Trappier, CEO of Dassault Aviation, emphasized in an interview with the French-language Le Figaro newspaper. It is rather an “upstream study phase,” he said.
If a “study phase” doesn’t sound like much progress, chalk it up to disputes over which nations would be allocated which jobs, who would own the intellectual property rights and which prime contractor would truly be in charge.
As for the latter, Dassault came out on top over Airbus. After several false claims over the last two years from politicians that all the problems had been resolved, the dispute truly came to an end late in 2022, when the partners signed an agreement to enter a plan 1B study phase with Dassault in charge.
You can’t have two generals and expect to accomplish anything, Trappier basically said when the agreement was announced. In the 1A study phase, the work was divided up into six pillars of work. Disputes immediately broke out over who would be doing what and where. And some players believed the intellectual property they brought to the table should be shared. Dassault disagreed with that notion, according to press reports at the time.
The German subsidiary of Airbus was to develop the uncrewed version of the jet, and Dassault the piloted version. But the Germans began to push back on that agreement, said Dan Darling, director of military and defense markets at Forecast International.
It is easy to blame everything on the French, “but there is truth on both sides,” Darling said in an interview at the air show.
“The key question when you are developing a new product like this is that you need an architect, an organizer,” Trappier told the FlightGlobal trade publication in early 2023. “If you have some kind of co-development, it doesn’t mean anything. At the end, it isn’t about how many jobs are created in one country, but the ability to deliver on time and on budget.”
The three nations are spending $3.5 billion on the 1B study phase of the project, and when that is finished, development truly kicks off with the second contract expected to be finalized by 2025.
Now, that the main points of contention have been ironed out, there has been nothing but positive statements coming out of the camps. The only controversy is whether to let Belgium join the program.
Meanwhile, as the three European nations squabbled over the Future Combat Air System, across the English Channel at the Farnborough Air Show, the United Kingdom, Italy and Sweden announced their own sixth-generation jet fighter called the Tempest, with those countries’ aviation industry leaders BAE Systems, SAAB and Leonardo kicking off their program with research-and-development work and much more progress being made.
Japan and its Mitsubishi Heavy Industries and Mitsubishi Electric eventually joined that program, adding its industrial might to what is now called the Global Combat Air Programme, or GCAP, while Sweden dropped out.
As seen at the DSEI Japan trade show in March, the three nations are much further along in development, with subcontractors being lined up and research-and-development funding being dispersed.
Both programs are declaring that they will deliver their sixth-generation aircraft by the mid-2030s, about the same time as the U.S. Air Force’s secretive Next-Generation Air Dominance jet fighter.
Darling said the rift between France and Germany has most likely put the Future Combat Air System behind at least a year, and then there will be all the usual hiccups international fighter jet development programs endure.
“It’s politics, and politics bleeds into industrial base sovereignty,” Darling said. Trappier wants a European-only aircraft, and it’s a bone of contention with France that both Germany and Spain are acquiring U.S.-made F-35s. Germany also recently stated its intention to buy U.S.-made P-8 Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft instead of partnering with France on a new program, he noted.
“It’s always a difficult thing because the French want a European solution,” Darling said. That is not necessarily wrong, and Trappier has always been honest about the program’s intentions, he added. His latest statements call into question Belgium’s possible entry into the program while the nation has ordered 34 F-35A models.
Darling noted that France was once part of the Typhoon program, but pulled out of that to create the Rafale.
“It wouldn’t surprise me if the French took their toys and went home,” Darling said. Meanwhile, “the program that seems to have more life in it now is the GCAP,” he added.