Short of ‘dream’ interoperability, rival European fighter programs share some tech


Promotional art for GCAP from electronics firm ELT. (Courtesy ELT)

LONDON — Senior officials leading Europe’s rival sixth generation fighter jet programs have said that they are involved in technology sharing and weapons collaborations with one another, and a senior French official even imagines a future in which a platform belonging to one program could “control” an aircraft from a separate effort.

“My dream is tomorrow [the British designed] Tempest could take control of a NGWS [Next Generation Weapon System] asset,” said French Air Force Maj Gen Jean-Luc Moritz, chief of the country’s Future Combat Air System (FCAS), during a future combat air summit held by the Royal Aeronautical Society in London today.

The NGWS covers three major parts of the wider French-German-Spanish FCAS effort, namely a Next Generation Fighter (NGF), Remote Carriers (RC) also known as loyal wingmen drones, and an Air Combat Cloud (ACC) networking capability.

“My dream tomorrow is NGAD could take control of the fighter the UK will buy,” continued Moritz, referring to the American Next Generation Air Dominance fighter. “My dream is [the French-made] Rafale and Tempest will fly together in an operation. My dream is Rafale, [Eurofighter] Typhoon and NGF will fly together. To reach this dream we need everything on the table from industry.”

Parallel to the FCAS effort, under an international “coalition agreement” signed in December 2022, the UK, Italy and Japan launched their own Global Combat Air Program (GCAP) that aims to get a sixth generation fighter into service by 2035. The move came after the UK and Italy had partnered on a joint effort to explore sixth generation research — confusingly also named the Future Combat Air System but an entirely separate endeavor to the French-German-Spanish FCAS program.

The alphabet soup of acronyms is a measure of the complexity of Moritz’s dream. But he and his fellow panelist indicated that despite the natural competitive nature of fighter aircraft production, and some very real logistical hurdles, they’re open to ways to combine forces in the air.

Richard Berthon, Director Future Combat Air at the UK Ministry of Defence, said that “robust technology cooperation” continues between GCAP partners and FCAS personnel covering “some communications technologies” and future weapons but confirmed that weapons requirements have still to be set for GCAP.

France and the UK have committed to a new MBDA-designed cruise missile for delivery in 2030 under the Future Cruise and Anti-Ship Weapon (FCAS/W) program, but it remains to be seen if GCAP and FCAS will eventually share a common family of weapons, a scenario that looks relatively straightforward industrially as European weapons house MBDA acts as the prime weapons stakeholder for both projects.

“I think we’re a long way from pinning down exactly what the future weapons requirements might look like and knowing which direction each country is going in and therefore knowing what we might wish to do together or not,” said Berthon.

Additionally, he warned of trying to do “too much” on a bilateral basis between the UK and France especially around connectivity and interoperability challenges, instead suggesting that input from other international partners should be prioritised to sort out both issues.

“[On] the idea we’re going to magic up a global combat air cloud for all Western allied NATO forces, Japan and so on in the next few years, that’s not going to happen,” he added.

Elsewhere, the development of a Tempest crewed fighter prototype remains “on track” to meet a first flight milestone in 2027.

The new aircraft is not being designed as a prototype of the GCAP crewed fighter but offers “great learning” in advance of the design and development phase of the latter, according to Berthon.

“We had to reach a point by the end of last year where we had sufficient confidence that there was an alignment of both [UK and Japanese] requirements and potential concept solutions, to know whether we could do a collaborative program together,” he added. “That forced us do a lot of analysis over the course of last year to try to freeze at least some of the fundamental characteristics and parameters of the core [GCAP] platform.”

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