A two-year study set to begin in February could determine the possible design of France and Germany’s next-generation weapon system – to include a new fighter aircraft, unmanned platforms and upgraded weapons and sensors – but until the study’s results come in, a French Air Force senior official is keeping details close to the vest.
Berlin and Paris awarded a joint concept study contract Feb. 6 to Airbus Defence and Space and Dassault Aviation to develop a proposal for the Future Combat Air System (FCAS) meant to replace France’s Dassault-built Rafale fighters and Germany’s fleet of Eurofighter Typhoons, the countries’ two defense ministers announced Wednesday. The starting date for the study is Feb. 20 and will run for two years, they said.
The study will aim to identify “preferred baseline concepts for its major pillars such as Next Generation Fighter (NGF), Remote Carriers (RCs) and a System of Systems and associated next generation services” and evaluate the operational and technical feasibility of such concepts, as well as its program feasibility, according to a press release by the two companies. The study will also present joint demonstrator and technology needs. The initial study contract is worth about $74 million.
The joint study will help the two nations evaluate the proposed common system, relative to their own specific needs and priorities, French Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Philippe Lavigne told reporters Feb. 7 during a media roundtable at the Air Force Association in Arlington, Virginia. Spain has also expressed interest in the future system to replace its Boeing [BA] F/A-18 Super Hornet fleet.
“When the time comes, we will have other countries,” Lavigne asserted. But he emphasized that there is a “real determination” from France and Germany to move forward with the program because “it’s a need for our security, but it is also a need for our industry.”
The next-generation system is expected to consist of several platforms, to include a manned “new generation fighter” that would be outfitted with new and upgraded weapons, and a set of unmanned systems, or “remote carriers” that would be linked via the cloud. The goal is to reach full operational capability by 2040, but Airbus and Dassault plan to have initial demonstrators ready for launch at the upcoming Paris Air Show, to be held June 17-23 at Le Bourget exposition park outside the French capital.
The FCAS project will also serve as a “path” to upgrade France’s current air platforms through 2040, Lavigne noted.
The country plans to update the datalinks and boost connectivity for its fleet of Dassault-built Rafale fighter jets in the interim, he said. In January, Paris signed a $2.3 billion contract with Dassault to develop the F4 standard for 30 jets to be delivered by 2024, with some 28 Rafales already on order to receive some of the upgrades by 2023, Defense News reported at the time.
The F4 standard will include new radar sensors and front-center optronics, and upgraded missile and air-to-ground weapons capabilities including MBDA’s Mica NG air-to-air missile and Safran’s 2,200-pound AASM Air-to-Ground Modular Weapon, according to Dassault.
“The Rafale F4 will be one step toward the FCAS,” Lavigne said. He added that the French air force also plans to add more connectivity to its new fleet of 12 Airbus A330 MRTT tanker aircraft, the first of which was delivered this past fall.
“We just received the Airbus 330. We already think that around 2025 we will upgrade it with more connectivity in order to be part of this wave” of capability improvements, he said.
France and Germany first declared their intent to co-develop a next-generation fighter system at the 2018 ILA Berlin Air Show, with Airbus and Dassault announcing their agreement to partner on the project quickly thereafter (Avionics International, April 25 2018). The two countries have each sponsored their own studies on the project in the interim.