FCAS Odyssey: July 2020

By Pierre Tran

Paris – The unofficial estimated cost of the Future Combat Air System project could be €50-€80 billion ($57 billion-$91 billion), with much depending on whether the planned Next Generation Fighter will be manned or unmanned, French senators said July 15.

“The total cost of the programme is valued by certain analysts to be in a range of  €50-€80 billion,” said the 85-page report titled 2040: the FCAS Odyssey, drafted by senators Hélène Conway-Mouret and Ronan Le Gleut.

Much of the uncertainty of the cost stemmed from whether the new fighter jet would be manned or unmanned, the senators told reporters.

For now, the planned fighter jet was understood to be a manned aircraft, bearing in mind a manned aircraft cost more than an unmanned system, a specialist said.

The FCAS project comprised a new stealthy fighter jet, flying in a swarm of remote carrier drones, and a communications and command network, dubbed combat cloud, with links in air, sea, ground and space.

“This is an existential project,” Conway-Mouret said, pointing up the importance for industry and the collective interest. Strategic autonomy and support for the national and European defense industrial and technology base were seen as key factors.

France, Germany and Spain were backing the project, which would be an alternative to the F-35 fighter and compete with the UK Tempest fighter project.

Program cost

The cost would depend on whether the new fighter jet will be manned or unmanned, the senators told reporters ahead of the publication of the report. There was for now little information available on the nature of the fighter.

That high cost pointed up the need for trilateral cooperation between France, Germany and Spain, even though the former has much of the critical technology needed to build the fighter, the senators said.

Work on the FCAS, equally shared between France and Germany, was expected to cost €4 billion by 2026, when the demonstrator fighter was due to fly, and climb to €8 billion by 2030, the report said. There would also be the cost of production lines.

The phase 1B in the framework contract for development of FCAS is expected to be worth €2 billion. Phase 1A of that contract, signed in February, was worth €155 million and ran for 18 months.

Funding from Spain had yet to be fixed, but this was expected to match the French and German contributions, the report said.

Although international cooperation would increase the non-recurring cost of research and development, that cross-border link also allowed sharing of costs and cut the amount paid by each country, the report said. Orders would rise, lowering the unit price and operating costs through shared maintenance.

A budget for the FCAS will compete with funds for a new aircraft carrier, while defense will rival education, health and other civil sectors in an economy weakened by coronavirus.

That tough outlook showed the need to win support from the proposed European Defense Fund and other European initiatives, Conway-Mouret said.

FCAS vs Tempest

In drafting the report, the rapporteurs held a virtual meeting with the British defense procurement minister, Jeremy Quin, to be briefed on the Tempest project.

The UK was seeking partners, having agreed technology studies with Italy and Sweden, and approaching Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Japan, the senators said. That search for partners contrasted with the FCAS, which took a highly structured industrial approach based on “who does what” rather than an overall view.

This was not a “European” project but a restricted three-strong group of partner nations, a senator said.

That reflected a lesson from the A400M airlifter program which required consensus among the seven partner nations and the “juste retour” principle of funding effectively buying a project management and learning on the job. That approach led to heavy costs.

There appeared to be a “real” UK political determination to pursue Tempest, the report said, adding that British capabilities in fighter jets were “indispensable,” and it was to maintain that competence the UK would enter joint US programs.

There was close UK cooperation with the US, which brought access to American satellite intelligence and a 15 percent share of F-35 export sales, but there was also a “dependence” which the US could use to block development of a potential competitor, the report said. The UK’s share of F-35 sales financed its acquisition of the Lightning II fighter.

The Brexit factor and consequences of coronavirus set a tough financial outlook for Tempest, with the UK’s “integrated review” of defense, security and foreign policy postponed to the end of the year or early next year, the report said. That meant the budgetary consequences would only be known later rather than sooner.

The £2 billion ($2.5 billion) budget to assess Tempest technology to 2025 seemed too low, raising pressure to find partners, but the UK sought a “massive” domestic industrial return, making it hard for foreign cooperation.

There was a complete lack of cooperation between FCAS and Tempest, and any “reciprocal interest” would decline, the report said. Any cooperation would become more difficult if the UK gathered foreign partners, and a sharing of tasks among industry leaders — such as Airbus, BAE Systems, Dassault, Leonardo and Thales — in the one program would be “highly complex.”

The two fighter projects would likely be in direct competition, hurting the building of a European defense industry and technological base, and increasing export competition, making the economic consequences of coronavirus all the more difficult, the report said.

The Tempest was scheduled to fly in 2035, five years earlier than FCAS, giving the former a competitive advantage in the world market, the senators said.

Stealth assignment

On the FCAS demonstrator, a company was due to be appointed this year to lead the work on stealth, the report said. The principle was the “best athlete” approach, with the most advanced company managing rather than the country which contributed the most funds.

There was little known on the stealth work, which was important in strategic, operational and industrial terms, the report said. “Mutual confidence” was needed to decide which company would take the lead on this highly sensitive area.

Airbus unveiled Nov. 5 at a trade media briefing, work on stealth with its Low Observable UAV Testbed, which had been classified since the German defense ministry ordered work in 2010, the report said. The anechoic chamber, at Manching, southern Germany, was used to lower the acoustic, IR, and radar signature, and sought visual discretion.

In France, the Direction Générale de l’Armement procurement office said Feb. 20 the flight test campaign was concluded on the Neuron demonstrator for a stealthy unmanned combat air vehicle.

Of the €155 million on phase 1A research and technology work, €90 million was earmarked for the fighter, €18 million for the engine, €20 million for remote carriers, and €15 million on the combat cloud, the report said.

The planned new fighter is expected to carry remote carriers of various functions, capable of long range and a large internal missile bay to boost its stealth.

Cultural difficulties

Cultural and institutional differences were among the factors raised by the report, which referred to a Jan. 14 study observing that France and Germany “do not speak the same language.”

Berlin and Paris shared the political will to back the FCAS and could find agreement on divisive topics such as arms exports and the perceived threat, but difficulties lay in the German view there were close links between the French government and industry which put Germans at a disadvantage, the report said.

The Franco-German study was titled Consent, Dissent, Misunderstandings: the Problem Landscape of Franco-German Defense Industrial Cooperation.

A separate study, published Sept. 16, pointed up the institutional and judicial oversight which made the German approach different from the French, and gave a greater role for industry to  set technological trends in weapons. That report was titled “Defense Industrial Policy in Germany: The State Caught in the Play of Glass Beads.

14 recommendations

Among 14 recommendations, the non-binding report called on the three nations to sign in  first half 2021 a framework contract covering delivery of the demonstrator by 2025/26 rather than a series of contracts, requiring repeated political approval, slowing down the project.

The timing was important as next year sees German elections, and French elections in the following year, slowing down the project.

Other recommendations include:

  • The partner nations drawing up a joint industrial strategy agreement
  • Speed up the FCAS timetable, to win funding under the French national recovery plan after the coronavirus crisis, and fly the aircraft before 2040
  • Germany sign an export agreement with Spain, similar to the deal reached with France
  • The demonstrator should fly with an M88 engine. There had been talk of fitting the EJ200 motor, which powers the Typhoon, but that was shot down by backers of the M88, which powers the Rafale fighter.
  • The combat cloud should carry the same level of importance as the new fighter and new engine, and link the combat cloud to the SIC command and control network in the French Army’s Scorpion program
  • ONERA should have a full role in FCAS, and companies should be encouraged to subcontract work to the aerospace research agency
  • after the 2026 demonstrator flight, sign up other partner states and seek support from European Union defense initiatives.
  • -Take into account the Tempest program as a competitor and the parallel existence of the two fighter projects.

The authors chose the title of the report to echo the science fiction novel by Arthur C Clarke and film by Stanley Kubrick, 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Homer’s work, The Odyssey, recounted the 10 years Odysseus took to find his way back to his home on the island of Ithaca, perhaps a time of travail the three partner nations are keen to avoid.

The featured photo is of the mockup of the FCAS fighter as seen at the 2019 Paris Air Show. Credit: Second Line of Defense