Europe to demonstrate future air combat strength

AMJun19Features - military1
AMJun19Features - military1

To become operational from 2040, the air combat future of western European countries is to be networked and powered by artificial intelligence. Rob Coppinger reports.

Demonstrator programmes for a Franco-German-Spanish combat air system that includes a manned fighter aircraft, missiles and drones are expected to be launched at this year’s Paris Airshow.

The European combat air system will primarily consist of what is called a Next Generation Fighter (NGF), new missiles such as cruise missiles, swarming drones called Remote Carriers, satellites, existing aircraft and NATO navies. All of them are to be networked together through a combat cloud, a shared internet database, and this combat system is expected to achieve full operational capability by 2040. A two-year joint concept study contract was signed by Airbus and Dassault in February with demonstrator programmes expected to be launched at Le Bourget this June.

“The demonstrator phase will be an important milestone for the Future Combat Air System (FCAS) programme. We are optimistic we can reach an agreement soon. Germany and France, as well as industry in both countries, are in talks about the launch of a demonstrator phase,” Airbus told Aerospace Manufacturing. “The Joint concept study will last almost two years and we are at the beginning so it’s too early to share some conclusions.”

The NGF, the Combat Cloud, and Remote Carrier (RC) drones are to be developed in parallel. In French Ministry of Defence imagery, the NGF is a twin-jet engine tailless manned aircraft with a planform that has stealth characteristics. Last year, the Ministry said the NGF will be able to undertake air-to-air and air-to-ground missions.

Airbus said: “We will have to define the fine adjustments in terms of manoeuvrability, stealth, sensors, engine, etc. But we can say that the NGF will be a manned, optionally manned platform and there will be a naval version.” The company expects the NGF to use new long-range and hypersonic missiles.

The NGF will also eventually replace the Dassault Rafale and Eurofighter Typhoon from 2040 onwards.

Cornerstone to tomorrow

In the February contract announcement Dassault Aviation chairman and CEO, Eric Trappier, said: “This new step is the cornerstone to ensure tomorrow’s European strategic autonomy. We, as Dassault Aviation, will mobilise our competencies as system architect and integrator, to meet the requirements of the nations.”

Dassault Aviation chairman and CEO, Eric Trappier

The NGF pilot could act as an overall mission commander interacting with the Remote Carriers, which would perform reconnaissance and engage highly defended threats as a decoy or by jamming them. Airbus explained that these drones, “should be a set of unmanned systems from a couple of hundred of kilos to two tonnes [in size]. They will have the capability to team amongst each other and with the manned component and supplement the mission capabilities of the [NGF].”

“Depending on the defence encountered, we would send either its [FCAS] fast components or its stealth components to counter it,” Airbus said. The FCAS work is expected to incorporate Airbus’ Manned Unmanned Teaming technology, known as MUT. For MUT, Airbus has said that: “Expertise gained during the manned-unmanned teaming test flight campaigns will be applied by Airbus to develop [FCAS].”

Those MUT test flights involved five Airbus-built Do-DT25 target drones controlled by a mission group commander who was in a manned command and control aircraft over a test zone in Germany’s Baltic Sea area. The tests, Airbus said, proved out the automatic guidance, navigation and intelligent swarming capabilities.

Dassault Aviation has been flight testing the nEUROn combat drone prototype. A jet powered stealthy drone, it started more low-observability testing in January. France’s Ministry of Defence is managing the nEUROn project. Dassault Aviation is the prime contractor with five partner countries and their companies, including, Italy’s Alenia Aermacchi, Sweden’s Saab, Greece’s HAI and Switzerland’s Ruag, also involved. The first flight of nEUROn took place on 1 December 2012. While Airbus said that nEUROn is not connected to FCAS, Dassault has said that it could contribute to future aircraft projects.

Another European drone project is the European Medium-Altitude Long-Endurance Remotely Piloted Aircraft (MALE RPAS). This is a joint Dassault Aviation, Airbus and Leonardo programme, originally announced in September 2016 by the four participating nations of Germany, France, Italy and Spain. A full-scale model of this twin-turboprop drone was unveiled at the 2018 ILA Berlin Airshow after a two-year definition study.

By January 2018, the MALE’s systems requirements review milestone was passed. The next milestone was the system preliminary design review which was scheduled for the end of 2018. The MALE RPS is designed for flight in non-segregated airspace. It will be capable of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions, both in-theatre and elsewhere. Entry-into-service for the MALE is expected by 2025.

A system of systems

The Combat Cloud is part of what the February contract announcement called: “an Ecosystem embedded in a System-of-Systems FCAS architecture.” Airbus describes this architecture as: “the interlinked manned and unmanned platforms which are part of a FCAS such as existing platforms, such as Eurofighter, the Rafale, or future platforms, or satellites acting on commonly orchestrated mission goals.” Last year, the French Ministry of Defence said that FCAS would use artificial intelligence.

Eight days after the February announcement, Spain’s defence minister, Margarita Robles, signed a letter of intent to join the FCAS programme on 14 February. Robles said: "Spain joins this project on equal terms with France and Germany.” The Spanish government expects its industry to benefit from FCAS in the same way it benefitted from the Eurofighter programme. Spain also intends to incorporate the subsequent FCAS capability into its military. The Spanish air force currently operates the Typhoon.

The French Ministry of Defence's latest FCAS graphic showing how the future air combat system would be networked [SCAF] Credit: French Ministry of Defence
The February 2019 announcement was preceded by a July 2017 German-French Council of Ministers agreement to jointly develop a future fighter jet to replace their existing fighters; an April 2018 Franco-German agreement signed at the ILA Berlin Airshow, called the High Level Common Operational Requirements Document, which described the capability requirements for FCAS.

Dassault Aviation and Airbus Defence and Space also signed their own agreement, at ILA Berlin, which according to Dassault was for studies for an FCAS roadmap, and in June 2018, a deal signed by France and Germany to launch the FCAS project was also agreed.




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