French Agency ONERA and the Future Combat Air Systems Project

By Pierre Tran

Paris – Research on optical wireless communications and future enemy threats are among the studies ONERA could provide to support the Future Combat Air System, said Jacques Cornu, program director for air combat systems at the French aerospace research organization.

ONERA has a department working on electro-optical technology, which could be adapted to provide optical wireless communications and replace radio some time in the future, he said. The US is studying adaptive electro-optical systems.

A study of “tomorrow’s threat from adversaries” is another potential area for the FCAS project, as Onera keeps track of emerging technology, he said.

There is concern over timing, as managers need to “prepare the teams” to ensure they will be available for work on the FCAS, to deliver the studies on time, he said.

Meanwhile, the French senate is publishing a report calling for greater government support for ONERA, seen as losing ground to its German counterpart DLR.

“DLR appears to have already secured a national budget for its contribution to the FCAS through BDLI, which is not the case for ONERA,” wrote Dominique de Legge, the rapporteur on the senate finance committee, financial website La Tribune reported July 8.

BDLI is a German aerospace trade association.

The absence of ONERA in the preliminary work on the FCAS poses “a threat to the balance in Franco-German relations in the defense industry,” the report said. “If its participation in the FCAS is insufficient, the definitive loss of know-how at ONERA poses a major risk.”

Germany has funded upstream work on FCAS, with research institutes DRL and IABG receiving state contracts, Cornu said.

In search of technology

The demonstrator for the Next Generation Fighter in the FCAS is due to fly in 2026, with the fighter jet due to take to the skies in 2035 and enter service in 2040, Cornu said.

There will be work to be done in researching and maturing technology to see that it will be “viable” for the Next Generation Fighter, remote carriers and network which will make up the FCAS, he said.

ONERA has other technology areas which could support FCAS, including propulsion, radar, stealth, surface materials and aircraft design. Talks are going on to draw up contracts for studies expected to be launched in 2021.

On the FCAS, a major requirement is seen to lie in tackling anti-access/area denial systems, where enemy radars and missiles work in networks to detect, jam communications and destroy aircraft seeking to enter the airspace, an industry executive said.

Optical communications such as lasers would be sensitive to clouds and hot weather, but  would be “impossible to intercept,” the executive said. An understanding of future threats would allow manned aircraft and remote carriers to be suitably armed and equipped.

Those remote carriers could be armed or carry payloads designed to outsmart air defense systems, fooling the enemy to think the remote carriers were fleets of manned fighters, seeking to trigger a firing of missiles and disclosing their location.

In the research community, there are concepts and work graded in the technology readiness level, which runs from one to nine. ONERA works upstream from level one to five or six, before industry takes over work in the more mature stage at level six, Cornu said.

The government, through the Direction Générale de l’Armement procurement office, commissions ONERA to pursue the early research work, to “unlock the technological barriers,” and assess whether the technology is mature or not.

ONERA then hands over to industry to pursue the most appropriate approach.

Preparation needed

There will be no government research contract on FCAS this year for ONERA. There is concern the staff may be committed to other projects, making it hard to pursue research when the FCAS contracts land. Test benches need to be prepared and equipment brought to the right technical standard.

ONERA also needs to talk to the services for the concept of operations and technical requirement. With those discussions, the resources can be set aside.

“There is need for visibility,” Cornut  said.

Industry received the first round of funding for work on FCAS, indicating there was no shortage of funds. The government awarded a two-year, €65 million ($73.4 million) joint concept study in February 2019 and signed in February 2020 an 18-month contract worth €150 million for demonstrator Phase 1A of the FCAS project.

The DGA was not immediately available for comment.

On FCAS, Dassault Aviation is prime contractor on the Next Generation Fighter, with Airbus Defence and Space as main partner. Airbus manages the remote carriers, with MBDA as main partner. Thales is leading work on the air combat cloud network.

In work on aircraft carriers, Onera conducted aerodynamics studies for the Charles de Gaulle flagship, examining airflows from the island on the flight deck, which created turbulence and destabilized aircraft coming in to land.

Those studies may come in useful as there are media reports president Emmanuel Macron might announce plans to build a successor to the Charles de Gaulle carrier on July 14, the Bastille day national holiday marking the French revolution.

For the website of ONERA, see the following: