STUTTGART, Germany – After the decade of 2020, it seems like 2040 is centuries away. For Airbus, however, the planned deployment date for the next-generation European combat aircraft and weapon system is just around the corner.
The Future Combat Air System (FCAS) industrial partners have made significant strides in the pan-European multi-system effort despite the hurdles of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, Airbus and its co-contractors Dassault Aviation and Indra face a “very difficult roadmap” to complete system designs, begin pre-engineering, start production and get the systems up and running, said Bruno Fichefeux, FCAS director for Airbus. during the company’s annual specialist media briefing on December 9th.
The 18-month joint concept study and Phase 1A of the demonstrator portion are progressing well, but companies need to act quickly to reach key stages of technology maturity, he said. “This is an important approach to reducing risk and accelerating the future development program to ensure we are on time and as expected.”
France, Germany and Spain have joined forces in the FCAS program, which includes seven next-generation technology pillars: a sixth generation fighter jet, several drones with “remote-controlled carriers”, a next-generation weapon system, a brand new engine for advanced sensors and stealth -Technologies as well as an “air combat cloud”.
In September, the three nations’ air forces worked together to select the five preferred architectures that will help inform the subsequent phases of the program, Fichefeux said at the virtual meeting.
The goal for 2021 is for FCAS to enter the preliminary demonstrator development phase for the next-generation fighter and the remote carrier aircraft. These contracts are currently being negotiated, he noted. From 2021, the FCAS will increase from a few million euros to billions of euros, he added. “It’s a big step forward [that] We want to initiate next year. “
When these negotiations are concluded, observers can expect some important design decisions. For example, whether the next generation fighter will have one or two seats, Fichefeux said.
The Airbus unmanned aerial systems team has advanced its technology-related efforts for remote airlines and manned unmanned teams. Jana Rosenmann, the company’s UAS director, said at the briefing that her team had submitted her proposal for Phase 1B of the FCAS demonstration part, which is slated to begin next year.
The team is studying two remote carrier designs. “We are looking at both a smaller, expendable long-range carrier and a larger, conventional long-range carrier that looks in the direction of a loyal wingman to fly with the fighter,” said Rosenmann. Airbus is the prime contractor for the distant airlines pillar.
The program has some new partners on board, Fichefeux announced on Wednesday. In April, Airbus teamed up with the German Ministry of Defense for an eight-month pilot program to include non-traditional startups and research institutes in the FCAS group.
Eighteen organizations worked on 14 different program elements that covered the full spectrum of technology pillars. These efforts have produced tangible results, including a first flight-test-approved carrier of an unmanned aerial vehicle system from a transport aircraft; a safe battle cloud demonstrator; and a demonstrator of applied artificial intelligence in radio frequency analysis.
Those 18 partners could be picked up later in the subcontracting program, noted Fichefeux.
The plan is “to mature these pilots step by step and then it could turn into a real contract part within FCAS development,” he said. “There is a perspective to bring them on board at a later date.”
Meanwhile, Airbus announced on Wednesday that its Spanish subsidiary has been selected as the prime contractor for the low-observability pillar of the program. Airbus Spain will also lead Madrid’s contribution to the next generation battle pillar. Indra has acted as the national director for the entire program since Spain joined the FCAS in early 2020. It also leads the sensor column and at the same time helps combat the cloud and simulations.
The conclusion of the low-observability contract “completes Spain’s onboarding as an equal nation for all FCAS activities,” Airbus said in a press release. “The signing completes a ten-month process in which Spain will be the third nation on board.”
The program will begin testing technologies with low observability early in the demonstration phase, confirmed Fichefeux. Both the fighter aircraft demonstrator and the remote air carrier will have stealth capabilities when they begin flight tests, which are expected as early as 2026. The team then has to work on questions of how and how the thermal signature of the future engine can be taken into account and how to integrate sensors and antennas, said Fichefeux. Low observability “is part of almost all pillars, and the goal of this maturation is to prove” what works and what doesn’t.
In addition to a personal deadline, the FCAS program could also be exposed to the schedule pressure of the second European sixth generation hunting program. The UK, Italy and Sweden have joined the Tempest program, with the current goal of delivering new warplanes to the nations’s military by 2035.
When asked if the two combat programs could eventually converge, Fichefeux stated that it would ultimately be a government decision.
“That is our responsibility on the industrial side, just not to lose any waiting time,” he said. “If governments want to define a convergence path, we will support it in due course.”