European produced fighters (Rafale, Gripen and Typhoon) belong to the so-called 4th generation.
However, countries such as France and Germany have recently reaffirmed their interest in producing a next generation fighter by 2040.
What challenges do they face to be successful, both in industrial and operational terms?
During the Franco-German ministerial council on defense held in July 2017, France and Germany agreed on the need to boosting their industrial partnership in the defense domain.
In particular, the two countries expressed their willingness to strengthen political-military cooperation within the EU and to develop bilateral capability-driven programs.
These would include, among others, a new main battle tank, a new maritime patrol aircraft and the next generation fighter jet.
The decision to push forward the fighter program has been formally taken during the ILA Berlin air show (April 2018).
On April 25, the two companies in charge of developing the program, Dassault Aviation and Airbus, signed the industrial agreement on the Future Combat Air System (FCAS). The acronym indicates the comprehensive program encompassing the next generation joint fighter.
Dassault Aviation has been assigned the lead of the FCAS program, while Airbus will lead the MALE RPAS program (with the latter carried out in cooperation with Italy and Spain).
On April 26, the French Defence Minister Parly and her German counterpart Van der Leyen signed the cooperation agreement that officially kicked-off the development of the ambitious FCAS program.
On the same day, the French Air Force’s Chief of Staff, General Lanata, and the German Air Force’s Director-General for Planning, General Bühler, signed the High Level Common Requirement Document (HLCORD), thus drafting the operational requirements the new joint fighter would respond to.
Should the agreed schedule be respected, first prototypes/demonstrators of the next generation joint fighter would start trials in 2025, with first deliveries of series aircraft expected between 2035 and 2040.
As declared in official statements, the joint fighter is intended to “complement and eventually replace current generation of Eurofighter and Rafale fighter aircraft by 2035-2040.”
However, this possibility should not been taken for granted, as well as the real accomplishment of the objectives established in the HLCORD.
According to the document, the next generation fighter will be tailored on future operational challenges.
It will likely be multi role (like the Rafale) and flexible, thus being able to respond to the whole spectrum of air-to-air and air-to-surface missions.
Key capacities for future high-intensity battlefields, such as survivability and deployability in contested airspaces, will be ensured by novel technical features, including a certain degree of stealth or low observable characteristics.
The next fighter will have to be deployable alone or in collaboration with allied systems (interoperability) and the other FCAS systems (in fact, would take the form of a system of systems).
Thus, the fighter will likely have real-time data merging capabilities, and high connectivity features.
The French might have expressly asked for a navalized version of the fighter, probably to minimize duplications during the program development, as is the case for F-35A (CTOL), B (STOVL), and C (CATOBAR).
Conversely, the HLCORD does not mention any nuclear capability.
Previously mounted exclusively on Dassault Mirage 2000N, the ASMP-A nuclear cruise missile (a component of the French nuclear deterrent) has been integrated on Rafale F3.
Should the next joint fighter not include any nuclear weapon capability, it is unclear which aerial asset would be in charge of the French airborne nuclear deterrent after Rafale will complete the phase-out (expected in the 2040 timeframe).
The F-35 Benchmark
The joint Franco-German fighter-to-be is conceived as a 5th generation one, and presents several points of comparison with Lockheed Martin F-35, the state-of-the-art among fighters.
However, France and Germany (at least for the time being) do not have any operational experience in flying the US-produced aircraft and, consequently, they are not used to its philosophy – which, to some extent, is as significant as thetechnical features themselves.
The Lockheed Martin F-35 is an advanced multi-role fighter that features a number of remarkable technical capabilities – namely stealthness or low observabilty and agility, avionics, and fully-fused sensor information.
It is a multi-domain aircraft rather than being a multi-role fighter.
Sensor fusion and management of information for the pilot are the true revolution this fighter brings to its pilots, and to the battlefield in general.
In fact, the pilot can focus on a number of limited, yet essential tasks (for example, deciding which kind of offensive or defensive action to take) rather than being in charge for the whole intelligence cycle.
Thanks to sensor fusion, F-35 pilots get a comprehensive situational awareness in a short amount of time, with a positive impact on efficiency.
The F-35 sensor package provides pilots with a 360-degree access to real time information, allowing them to receive comprehensive intelligence from the battlefield, rather than “gross” information to be aggregated and analysed individually by pilots. This global situational awareness is enhanced thanks to Northrop Grumman AN/APG-81 AESA (Active Electronically Scanned Array) radar and AN/AAQ-37 Distributed Aperture System (DAS), BAE Systems AN/ASQ-239 electronic warfare/countermeasure system, and Rockwell Collins Helmet Mounted Display.
Additionally, the F-35 avionics provide an outstanding support to the pilot not only in terms of input (information gathering and intelligence cycle), but also in terms of output (once a task is selected, the fighter systems’ work together to accomplish it autonomously).
For example, the Electro-Optical Targeting Systems suggests priority targets and engagement solutions.
Once the pilot has made its decision and selected the operation to be executed, the fighter puts in place all the actions needed to accomplish the task and reach the desired result.
Furthermore, the F-35 has a revolutionary approach to interoperability. The Multifunction Advanced Data Link (MADL) allows for sharing the data gathered by each platform with the others involved in the same missions – for example, modern and legacy strike aircrafts, as well as other aerial or ground-based platforms.
This information sharing allows for reaching an unmatched degree of situational awareness.
And the communicators system known as the CNI or Communications, Navigation and Identification system provides capability to connect with aircraft on various channels, including Link 116.
The 5th generation fighter reshuffles the chain of command as well. F-35 technical capabilities are a game changer for pilots’, who finally become responsible for taking decisions.
So far, pilots have been encompassed in a top-down pyramidal decision-making command chain, with them being at the base.
Since the 5th generation fighter provides comprehensive threats’ identification and suggests potential actions to take for its neutralisation, pilots become small decision-makers in charge for choosing the best solution among the available ones.
The more pilots are able to take autonomous decisions, the more the Air force is enabled to fully exploit F-35 features.
Therefore, taking decision is less pyramidal, and it is distributed among a larger number of small decision makers, thus speeding up the whole decision-making process as well as increasing the resilience of the whole task force – which is difficult to decapitate.
Put in simple terms, the F-35 is about reshaping air combat operations, not simply building a new combat platform.
The Challenge for European Development
As European Air forces gain experience in flying the F-35 system, notably the former F-16 fighter forces — Italy, the Netherlands, the Norwegians and the Danes — as well as the UK RAF and Royal Navy, the challenge will be to draw upon this experience and to leverage it for a new European fighter.
If this is not done, then the Franco-German project will be an iteration of their already flying 4th generation aircraft.
Yet the advanced tankers and A400Ms will be interacting with the F-35 as well as Rafale and Eurofighter as well.
How will this experience be shaped and leverage.
Otherwise, European requirements about the next generation fighter could prove short-sighted.
The requirements France and Germany have expressed for their future fighter, expected to be operational in about 15-20 years, mirror 5th generation aircraft’ technical features.
Nevertheless, the U.S. and its F-35 partners will build out from an operational fifth generation aircraft, and will evolve combat fighter capabilities over time, notably as the F-35 is a software upgradeable aircraft and will evolve over time.
This means that, as happened with other European joint programs, the Franco-German fighter could end up not be a state-of-the-art technology – or, worse still, it could be somehow obsolete – when it would enter into service.
And should the program schedule not be respected, the French and German air forces will face the challenge of expensive upgrades to their fourth generation aircraft.
The phase out is expected in the 2040 time frame for Rafale. Germany is struggling to replace its Panavia Tornado’s fleet (90 aircraft), which will reach the end of their operational life in 2025-2030.
It is likely that Berlin will expand its Eurofighter fleet (currently 130 aircraft) to compensate for Tornados’ phase out.
German Eurofighters could be operational until 2060s, but only if Airbus maintained the production line open until 2030s.
On the one hand, this seems the most logical choice, as it allows for economy of scale and savings in terms of delivery time and operational costs.
On the other hand, despite the Eurofighter’s development has been based on 1980’s operational requirements.
To build up an efficient Eurofighter fleet and to maintain the same capabilities expressed by Tornados, the fighter will need further upgrades – for example for what concerns radar.
However, as the German Eurofighter fleet showed a low efficiency ratio due to budget constraints, it is unclear how the country could fund Eurofighter’s upgrades and the development of the new generation fighter.
Indeed, the RAF has funded upgrades and shaped proprietary technology to do so.
And sorting through the Brexit challenge to UK industry working with the French and Germans will affect any Eurofighter modernization strategy.
A New European Fighter: Impact on Bilateral Relations
As recalled by both French and German defence ministers, developing a joint fighter could be an outstanding opportunity to gain in strategic independence from foreign countries – namely the U.S. for what concerns the 5th generation fighter.
The issue of enhancing European strategic independence from foreign products is one of the key drivers for current EU efforts towards stronger defence cooperation.
French and German stakeholders have repeatedly recalled that the concept of strategic autonomy will be at the core of the whole set of programs the two countries are willing to jointly develop – the next generation fighter jet and FCAS, the MALE RPAS, and the future maritime patrol aircraft.
Yet France and Germany do not share the same idea of what strategic autonomy means.
Paris considers strategic autonomy as the ability to launch and maintain autonomous military missions to protect French interests. Developing stronger and effective bilateral (Germany) and multilateral (European) military capabilities is deemed as an important step to reach this level of autonomy – as recalled in the French Strategic Revue released in 2017.
Thus, the French approach to the use of the military instrument is a pragmatic one, and effective military capabilities are considered indispensable to reaffirm and maintain the country’s credibility on the international stage.
In contrast, Berlin praises a stronger EU strategic autonomy, but without providing any definition or indication about what this should mean – in fact, official documents do not refer to this topic – and what missions is expected to take on.
This is part of a cautious Geramn approach to defense, which should be used mainly in multilateral frameworks (e.g. United Nations) and preferably under the form of peacekeeping missions.
The result of these competing visions is that numerous Franco-German joint programs promoted in the latest years rely on industrial or military considerations only, rather than responding to a common strategic approach.
Looking at the next generation fighter, strategic differences between Paris and Berlin could have a twofold negative impact.
First, they could negatively affect operational requirements – for instance, the inability to define a shared potential operational scenario could originate discrepancies on fighter’s expected capabilities.
Second, they will likely have an impact on export.
If on the one hand this will be crucial for the program’s sustainability, on the other the two countries do not share the same view when it comes to selecting export partners.
A New European Fighter: Impact on Defense Industry
Programs such as the joint fighter have a significant potential for relaunching the European aerospace industry, and thus maintaining its savoir-faire and competitiveness.
Both Dassault Aviation and Airbus have declared they deem their respective expertise sufficiently developed for the ambitious aeronautic projects that France and Germany are willing to advance together.
In fact, Dassault is the only European company able of autonomously delivering on a fighter program, from the design phase to series production. The Rafale program has provided evidence on this sense, and has been feeding the ambition of keeping up such capacity.
Working on a new fighter, a next generation one, would allow Dassault to exploit its know how while generating a new wealth of innovation.
For Dassault, the new fighter brings the company and the whole French aerospace industry a step closer to the state-of-the-art – or at least to the benchmark represented by U.S. 5th generation fighters.
The German wing of Airbus represents the core of German aerospace industry.
The sector will likely experience a capacity shortfall at the end of the Eurofighter program(which is one of the reasons why production will be prolonged with new orders, to replace the Tornado fleet).
Without a new program that – likewise for Dassault – allows for retaining key expertise while developing new ones, the German military aviation complex would experience a loss of competitiveness that Berlin is unlikely to accept (aerospace industry is a cornerstone of German economy).
In principle, should these program be successful, Dassault and Airbus will likely have acquired enough know how to relaunch their competitiveness in the top tier segment of the international fighter marketplace.
To some extent, the new fighter is the key program for establishing a kind of European champion in the fighter domain.
However, developing a 5th generation fighter requires significant cross-domain defense industrial efforts, especially in R&D.
The more the fighter will be technologically advanced, the (relatively) cheaper the MRO cycle will be.
In other words, today’s programs usually need high initial investment, while maintenance of delivered aircraft is cheaper than legacy aircraft throughout the product’s service life.
As comprehensive projects such as the next fighter heavily rely on public funds, the political impact is significant.
The current economic situation (France) and the fact that public opinion and some political parties are not always in favor of defense initiatives (Germany) make difficult to sell well the idea of spending plenty of funds to pledge to the next generation fighter instead of building schools, giving pensions, or raising wages.
Put bluntly, can France and Germany launch a significant and sustained financial investment in a fifth generation fighter?
A New European Fighter: Impact on Technological Development
The 5th generation fighter should not be intended as a technical accomplishment, rather as a new philosophical approach to contemporary warfare.
The 5th generation fighters do not ameliorate 4th generation fighters’ capabilities linearly. Looking back at fighters’ history, it is possible to observe that 1st, 2nd and 3rd generation fighters were, respectively, an evolution of the preceding generation.
The idea was to improve technology in order to make them able to fly higher, further, and faster.
Instead, the 5th generation brings a revolution in the way of thinking to military aviation.
This process involves outstanding technical features, but also important military and industrial developments that would maximize 5th generation fighters’ operational impact.
The F-35 is at the core of this revolution, and it will have to be the point of reference in shaping up the Franco-German next generation fighter for at least two reasons.
First, the F-35 is the state-of-the-art, and is expected to remain a cutting-edge technology (and philosophy) for the next decades as well.
Second, should the Franco-German fighter be deployed within coalitions, it will operate along the F-35.
American fighter pilots recognize that F-35 is easy to fly, but that carrying missions requires some form of adaptation due to the new role the pilot is given.
Sensor-fusion, 360-degrees situational awareness and information sharing with the other platforms participating in the same mission are among the most disruptive features F-35 brings.
However, the full exploitation of F-35 network centric capabilities will likely be limited in European countries that have procured the fighter (Great Britain, Italy, Denmark, the Netherlands, and Norway).
In fact, at least for the time being, air forces seem more inclined to use the F-35 as a legacy aircraft, rather than reshaping their doctrine of employment (and especially their chain of command) to exploit the F-35 potential.
In theory, the FCAS would mirror (at least in an embryonic form) the 5th generation network centric philosophy.
According to the limited information available about the program, the FCAS would be smart, modular, and interconnected.
The multi-mission fighter with C2 capabilities on unmanned effectors is expected to increase platforms’ smartness, and allow for interconnection with the other assets participating in the mission.
In addition, interconnection would enhance multi-domain capabilities, thus providing the possibility to carry missions involving air and space, electronic warfare and cyber.
The FCAS will likely have an open networked architecture in order to perform ISR, data fusion and distribution thanks to upgrades.
However, France and Germany could suffer of the same weaknesses of their neighbours if they do not adapt the whole spectrum of military assets to the 5th generation fighter’s doctrine.
This process should involve the chain of command (which means limiting the number of pyramidal decisions in favor of disseminating part of the decision-making process, thus providing pilots with more autonomy in taking decisions) as well as network centric capabilities (F-35 capabilities can be exploited only if the other assets can handle the same volume of information, with the same coding).
It is not simply about the network; it is about distributed decision-making and multi-domain warfare.
It is a warfare driven revolution, not simply about a low observable platform.
This is the challenge which F-35s operating in Europe will provide for non-F-35 air forces.
And this is a challenge which the European Air Group is already working.
Dassault CEO Trappier provided his perspective on the prospective new program earlier this year before the French parliament.
Eric Trappier, CEO of Dassault Aviation, answered the questions of the French Parliament on February, 28, 2018.
When asked about the hypothetical Franco-German fighter plane project, he appeared open but with a few conditions.
According to Trappier, the new project has to be made on long-term arrangements.
Trappier also questioned concrete and long-term advantages of several past cooperation projects such as the Lancaster House agreement signed by France and the United Kingdom, which led to the Future Offensive Air System (FOAS), a conjoint Franco-British stealth drone based on the Dassault nEUROn and BAE Systems Tanaris. The prototype should currently be under construction.
Trappier also mentioned former dissensions between European countries at the time of the Eurofighter Typhoon development that led to France building its own plane – the Rafale.
The needs of each European country were poorly defined: while other partners were aiming for a basic NATO plane, France was in need of a fighter that could equip both its Marine and Air Force, and that could also act as a nuclear platform.
According to Trappier, undefined objectives or difference in expectations could become a problem with the new project as well.
There is a legitimate need for a new fighter plane in Europe, Trappier believes: “We don’t have a Cold war anymore, but we certainly have a Hot peace”.
On an hypothetical Franco-German collaboration, Trappier agrees to the idea but with a few conditions: “Collaboration cannot be made on a 50-50 basis […] It would be like putting two steering wheels in the same car. It requires leadership,” adds the CEO of Dassault Aviation.
And for him, that leadership should be assumed by France: “It is not because the Germans can put more money into it that they have more skills in fighter planes.”
He regrets the choice of other European countries such as Netherlands and the United Kingdom to have preferred the F-35 to the Rafale, and urges the European politicians to push for more independence vis-à-vis the United States when it comes to defense industry and policies.
“If European collaboration is needed to counter the American wave (in European defense acquisition), it is in our interest to do so.”
Despite Dassault and Airbus experiences’ with Rafale and Eurofighter, respectively, the two firms might not be able to close the technology gap with the U.S. – where public and private investments on military R&D have been kept up even in times of economic constraints.
The next generation fighter will unlikely be equivalent to the F-35, thus limiting the extent of the gain in terms of strategic independence.
The Franco-German next generation fighter might not put in place the “doctrinal revolution” that 5th generation aircraft brought to the battlefield.
For example, should the new joint fighter not reach the same sensor-fusion and 360-degree access to information, France and Germany would still rely on the U.S. for what concerns information gathering.
If Europe wants greater strategic independence from the U.S., at least in the fighter sector, only consistent, extraordinary-sized pledges of funds would have some chance to succeed.
But the lack of political-military cohesion among European stakeholders and the unpopularity of defense politics play make such an option an uphill battle.
The author is an Italian defense analyst based in France.