Future Combat Air System: Too Big to Fail - Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik

Future Combat Air System: Too Big to Fail - Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik
NO. 2 JANUARY 2021                Introduction

Future Combat Air System:
Too Big to Fail
Differing Perceptions and High Complexity Jeopardise Success of
Strategic Armament Project
Dominic Vogel

The development of the Future Combat Air System (FCAS) is Europe’s most important
defence project. Both technologically and militarily, the project has the potential to
set new standards and revolutionise the use of air power. Politically, the multinational
project is a litmus test for the extent to which Europe is capable of cooperating on
security policy, developing its own capabilities and putting national interests to one
side for this purpose. The success of the project rides to a great extent on Germany
and France. However, the different perspectives and procedures of these two coun-
tries place FCAS at risk of collapse – a failure that would have serious disadvantages
for all involved.

The beginnings of the Future Combat Air           systems (e.g. Eurofighters or Tiger combat
System date back to 2001, when the first          helicopters), but also new platforms such
studies were carried out on the develop-          as the Eurodrone and a Next Generation
ment of new combat aircraft by a European         Weapon System (NGWS). The NGWS is
alliance. The FCAS project is scheduled to        the innovative core of the FCAS project. It
be ready for deployment by 2040. The term         consists of a new fighter aircraft, the Next
Future Combat Air System or its acronym           Generation Fighter (NGF), as well as remote
FCAS is often used in a misleading way.           carriers (RCs), all of which are connected
Although there are, of course, connections        to each other in a protected data exchange
to the successor solution for the Tornado         system called the Air Combat Cloud (ACC).
fleet, FCAS is much more than a combat                FCAS and NGWS are not synonymous,
aircraft project.                                 but the latter is an integral part of the for-
   The German government’s military avia-         mer. The overarching FCAS system can be
tion strategy describes it as a “system of sys-   imagined as an arrangement of concentric
tems” that is to form the backbone of the         circles: In the centre is the NGF, the next
air force in the long term. FCAS is in fact       generation combat aircraft. In the inner
not a single flying platform, but rather an       circle, together with the remote carriers,
operational network composed of existing          is the Next Generation Weapon System,
which is connected and controlled via the        intention is not to wait until all compo-
                Air Combat Cloud. In the outer circle, the       nents have been fully developed, but rather
                NGWS is linked with other systems. These         to make interim results available in order
                include fighter aircraft, such as the Euro-      to gather practical knowledge for the rest
                fighter or the French Rafale, but also           of the process.
                tankers, naval vessels, satellites and assets       Germany and France are key players in
                of the other integrated armed forces. This       the development fields, while Spain joined
                is what makes up the Future Combat Air           the organisation at a later stage. Opportuni-
                System, in which all elements must con-          ties for Spanish companies to participate
                stantly communicate with each other to           arise firstly from gaps that are still emerg-
                form a cohesive system.                          ing and need to be filled in a meaningful
                   The military value will therefore lie less    way and, secondly, from Spain’s industrial
                in the individual platforms than in the way      policy interests. Although it is emphasised
                they are combined. If this architecture is       that all seven pillars will make significant
                transferred to the Bundeswehr’s existing         contributions to future developments, the
                systems, it means that the Eurofighter will      most tangible and formative results are cer-
                be further developed and will continue to        tainly to be expected in the areas of aircraft
                be operated within the FCAS framework,           development, including the engine and
                while the Tornado will be replaced by an-        drones (remote carriers).
                other system that will also have to be inte-        The perception of FCAS as a Franco-Ger-
                grated into the FCAS.                            man project has in fact become obsolete
                   The conceptual complexity makes a fact-       since Spain joined. In view of the division
                based debate difficult. Some publications        of development packages between Germany
                are dedicated to FCAS, but in essence only       and France and the progress of the project,
                refer to the combat aircraft component.          this view nevertheless remains valid. One
                This results in a loss of definition and depth   of the central tasks for the further develop-
                of detail. Reducing FCAS to the NGF com-         ment of the project is the full integration
                ponent underestimates the complexity and         of Spain, which can also serve as a blue-
                scope of the project and neglects relevant       print for the later inclusion of other part-
                subcomponents such as the development            ners. Here, it is important to allow Spain
                of remote carriers, i.e. the development of      to participate in the progress of the project
                a technology for armed drones that are at        as quickly as possible to create a common
                least semi-autonomous.                           starting point for the three sponsoring
                   The actual form FCAS takes may differ         nations.
                across the different partner nations, and the
                integrated platforms may vary. It is possible
                that in the future, individual states will       Cultural and Structural Differ-
                only use the inner circle with the NGWS or       ences between Paris and Berlin
                only deploy the NGF or individual remote
                carriers in their armed forces. Despite all      Germany has previously favoured multi-
                these options, it is important that FCAS is      national European cooperation for the
                always understood as an overarching sys-         Tornado and Eurofighter. France, on the
                tem. The design of the project’s architectural   other hand, has opted for national devel-
                framework takes this into account. FCAS is       opment approaches. Berlin and Paris are
                divided into a total of seven development        unequal partners, united in an ambitious,
                fields (pillars), each of which is led by one    sometimes visionary armament project.
                company (see Figure 1).                          However, their different political and stra-
                   Development within these separate pil-        tegic cultures also influence joint projects
                lars proceeds at different speeds and on the     such as FCAS. France’s centralist presiden-
                basis of separate contracts. The system fol-     tial system contrasts with Germany’s strong
                lows an incremental approach. The explicit       parliamentary system, while France’s claim

SWP Comment 2
January 2021

Figure 1

to be capable of unilateral military action     rights (IPRs) is essential for the further
contrasts with Germany’s orientation            progress of the project and impacts many
towards multilateral structures. FCAS is        other issues. For example, how the use of
therefore just as much a political project as   the individual components is organised will
a military one – misunderstandings and          ultimately depend on this. Are maintenance
thus risks can always arise from the above-     and repair work only to be carried out by the
mentioned differences, and these need to        lead manufacturer, or is access to the docu-
be addressed at the governmental level. In      mentation guaranteed to such an extent
view of the complexity and the manifold         that this can largely be done within the
implications of the project, the German         armed forces supported by national indus-
participants need to be clear about their       trial cooperation? If only the manufacturer
own, the French and the general European        can and is permitted to carry out certain
interests.                                      parts of the maintenance, this might also
   In FCAS, the “best athlete” principle        affect operational readiness.
is applied: Each participating company is          Legal questions like this are also relevant
responsible for the area in which it has        for adaptations to and further developments
already proven capabilities. The individual     of FCAS, such as the integration of new weap-
nation heading/leading a specific pillar will   ons or avionics systems. Today, Germany
be supported by a main partner. This divi-      and France use different, to some extent
sion mainly pertains to the upcoming            nationally developed armament systems for
demonstration phases of the project (phase      their aircraft. If certain parts of the tech-
1B and 2).                                      nical documentation remain under lock and
   A crucial question that arises at this       key, a bottleneck could also develop here.
point concerns the protection of emerging          In addition to these rather practical im-
or existing intellectual property: to what      pacts of the aforementioned legal issues,
extent should companies disclose their pro-     industrial policy aspects also play a particu-
cesses and know-how, to what extent will        larly important role. German interests in
technical specifications be made available      terms of national key technologies (e.g. sen-
to the other partners later? An agreement       sor technology and electronic warfare) and
on how to deal with intellectual property       French interests in maintaining national

                                                                                                 SWP Comment 2
                                                                                                   January 2021

industrial strategic autonomy (e.g. the abil-         the Bundeswehr, through its procurement
                ity to develop a fighter aircraft completely          office (BAAINBw); and finally, industry,
                independently) come up against each other.            through individual companies or through
                The goal of a European solution needs to be           its umbrella organisations, each with differ-
                to minimise, ideally completely avoid, tech-          ent roles and interests. This structural dif-
                nological black boxes, as is often the case           ference generally favours France’s position
                now with US imports. Before FCAS can pro-             and especially in the case of the fighter air-
                ceed to Phase 1B and thus towards the de-             craft, where it is the development leader.
                velopment of demonstrators, these issues              Ultimately, this also shows that the German
                must be resolved and contractually fixed              procurement process needs to be reformed.
                in the individual project pillars.
                    Berlin and Paris each pursue their own
                national (economic) interests in industrial           The Different “Generations” of
                policy. France’s defence sector, however, is          Fighter Aircraft
                structured fundamentally differently from
                its German counterpart. The French defence            The French-led Next Generation Fighter,
                industry is closely interlinked with the state        the core of FCAS, is also described as a sixth-
                and resembles a cohesive entity. The state-           generation fighter. It would thus formally
                run Direction générale de l’armement (DGA)            be at the forefront of technical development.
                functions as the highest level of coordina-           The US F-22 and F-35 models, for example,
                tion for all defence projects and the central         form the so-called fifth generation, which
                point of contact for all equipment issues.            are currently the most modern fighters.
                However, it is more than just a French pro-              Fighter aircraft have long been divided
                curement office. For example, the DGA is              into generations by experts. This system
                responsible for a national pool of military           makes it possible to distinguish fighter air-
                engineers (corps des ingénieurs des études et tech-   craft models without having to deal with
                niques de l’armement, IETA), who are specifi-         the exact technical specifications each time.
                cally trained through assignments in the                 The categorisation is essentially based
                military, but also in industry placements.            on the characteristics of the technical stage
                Thus, there is a much higher degree of per-           of development and the period of develop-
                meability between the army and industry, as           ment. The division into generations is there-
                well as strong cultural and personnel links.          fore rather sketchy and becomes blurred at
                The government has no qualms about being              the transitions between two levels. Further-
                linked with the defence industry; on the              more, the generations in question are not
                contrary, the flow of information between             uniformly defined, generally recognised
                government and industry is formalised and             standards. There are even several approaches
                a natural part of national defence policy.            to the division of generations, some of which
                    The German side not only lacks an insti-          differ greatly from one another. In 1990,
                tutional counterpart to the DGA; German               for example, the historian Richard Hallion
                industry is also far less homogeneous. This           already identified six generations, whereby
                imbalance both from an institutional per-             the then common, now obsolete designs
                spective and in terms of the engineering              such as the Tornado, Mirage 2000 or F-14
                culture leads to misunderstandings on both            represented the sixth and most modern
                sides. Whereas in France the DGA, as the              generation.
                point of contact, centrally controls every-              These days, more common systems use
                thing, from signing the contract to issues            a different methodology, which is focused
                around development and utilisation, in                more on technology than era. The model
                Germany various actors play a role, both              published by the American Air Force Maga-
                internally and externally: the government,            zine in 2009 is particularly widely used (see
                represented by the Ministry of Defence and            Figure 2). It identifies five existing genera-
                Ministry for Economic Affairs, respectively;          tions based on technological milestones.

SWP Comment 2
January 2021

Figure 2

This system presents the prospect of a sixth      without an intermediate step. This is un-
generation as the next step in development,       likely to be possible, above all, because
to which it attributes features such as op-       characteristic features of both the fifth and
tional manning. The Tornado and the Euro-         the sixth generation, such as stealth tech-
fighter are classified as Generation 4 (Tor-      nology, have not yet been manufactured by
nado) or 4+ (Eurofighter), which is also the      any of the companies involved and are con-
consensus in the German discourse on              sidered very ambitious technologies.
the issue. The French Rafale (4+) and Mirage         On the other hand, the term “next gen-
2000 (4) are on the same spectrum. The            eration” can also refer to the aircraft that
assignment of an aircraft type to a certain       exist today. This would relativise the NGF
generation can therefore be quite contro-         somewhat, because it would then “only” be
versial and is ultimately always an aspect        classified as being more modern than the
of the marketing efforts of the manufactur-       Eurofighter and Rafale and would no longer
ing companies.                                    have to explicitly form the sixth generation.
   For each generation, several criteria have     From a German point of view, it is reason-
been defined that must be fulfilled for classi-   able for the development of the NGF to con-
fication. What is unclear, however, is wheth-     sider the technological status of the Euro-
er these criteria can be weighed against          fighter as a basis. In this case, further devel-
each other. For example, does better radar        opment in the direction of the NGF should
capability compensate for a lack of speed?        primarily take place in those areas that the
   If the term “generation” is used, it must      Eurofighter does not currently cover, i.e. pri-
be complemented by further classification         marily electronic combat as a key national
and explanation rather than being used as         technology.
a standalone designation. The label “Next
Generation”, as used in the components
of FCAS, refers to the system described (see      The Nuclear Dimension of a
Figure 2), but also allows other interpreta-      Future Combat Air System
tions. If the claim that the NGF is to be a
sixth-generation fighter is accepted, the         Questions of technology sovereignty and
F-35 is considered the technological bench-       the generational allocation of the NGF also
mark. This also implies that one generation       play a decisive role when it comes to the
needs to be skipped if we are to get from         nuclear capability of FCAS. France regards
the Eurofighter to the sixth-generation NGF       nuclear deterrence as an essential corner-

                                                                                                     SWP Comment 2
                                                                                                       January 2021

stone of its own and European sovereignty          weapon carrier in this scenario. However,
                and has earmarked 37 billion euros for it in       this aircraft does not have the necessary
                its military budget until 2025. With around        nuclear certification from the USA. Later,
                300 warheads, France’s nuclear potential is        the NGF would have to take over the
                the fourth largest in the world. In addition       nuclear role, for which it would also need
                to ballistic missile-equipped submarines,          certification. This circumstance appears
                France has nuclear cruise missiles that are        particularly problematic from today’s per-
                carried by the Rafale fighter aircraft, partly     spective: Firstly, a technical solution would
                from aircraft carriers. From a French perspec-     have to be found to meet the requirement
                tive, the NGF, as the successor to the Rafale,     that this aircraft would have to be able to
                must be capable of performing this task. Two       carry both the American and the French
                capability requirements result from this:          weapon. There is currently no aircraft
                firstly, the carrying of the nuclear stand-off     capable of doing this. It would make the
                weapon ASMP, and secondly, the capability          project even more complex because not
                to operate from aircraft carriers.                 only technical (gravity weapon vs. cruise
                    For Germany, the link between FCAS and         missile) but also confidentiality aspects
                the nuclear role is more indirect. Today, the      would have to be clarified.
                Bundeswehr participates in NATO’s nuclear             Secondly, the question of whether the
                sharing with its Tornado fleet. In addition,       Eurofighter could be certified as a nuclear
                nuclear gravity bombs are stationed in Ger-        carrier has already shown that this issue
                many. The future of this role is politically       will be associated with major hurdles. For
                controversial. Among other things, critics         this certification, the technical documenta-
                are calling for an end to nuclear sharing,         tion of the fighter and all other equipment
                since it does not guarantee any influence          involved in the mission must be disclosed
                on US nuclear strategy and the use of              on a regular basis. Since all user states must
                nuclear weapons is ethically unacceptable          give their consent, the matter is very sen-
                under international law. This debate crys-         sitive for reasons of military and industrial
                tallised around the question of the suc-           secrecy. Since the NGF will officially be the
                cessor to the Tornado.                             French nuclear weapon carrier, it is part of
                    From the federal government’s point of         France’s strategic autonomy. The necessary
                view, the continuation of nuclear sharing          French approval for certification therefore
                is a fundamental capability requirement in         seems uncertain from today’s perspective –
                the choice of combat aircraft. The opposi-         after all, this is also a question of intellectu-
                tion, on the other hand, tabled a motion in        al property rights, an issue which is a com-
                the German Bundestag to end operational            mon thread running throughout the project.
                nuclear sharing and no longer certify a com-          If Germany sticks with the F-18 bridging
                bat aircraft for this purpose. In April 2020,      solution, it might have a new nuclear car-
                the Federal Ministry of Defence (BMVg) pro-        rier, but would face the challenge of inte-
                posed a solution whereby it would like to          grating this aircraft into the overarching
                replace the Tornados in the German Air             FCAS system. An implicit weakening of the
                Force with American F-18 models (Genera-           alliance and additional costs for fleet man-
                tion 4+). It refers to this as a “bridging solu-   agement would be the result. In the worst
                tion” because the aim is to ensure opera-          case, it could even become apparent that
                tional readiness in the period between the         the NGF would not be considered a replace-
                imminent phase-out of the Tornado and the          ment in the nuclear role. Since Germany
                NGF, which will presumably not be avail-           might not have a successor for the F-18s, it
                able until 2040. However, there is no con-         would be forced to use a Generation 4+ sys-
                crete indication of how the nuclear role           tem for decades.
                will be taken into account in the future.             Even today, doubts are being raised
                    If the “bridging” logic is followed, the       about the operational suitability of airborne
                American F-18 would be the next nuclear            nuclear sharing and the older the carrier

SWP Comment 2
January 2021

aircraft, the more justified these qualms in         This is one of the reasons why it is so im-
fact are. It is therefore not unlikely that the      portant to view FCAS as a holistic system.
bridging solution will either become perma-              The project schedule is very ambitious
nent or that nuclear sharing in its current          given the complexity of the project and
form will be put into question nolens volens.        the many unknowns. The first flight of the
Germany and France tackle this dimension             NGF planned for 2035 and the start of the
from different positions on deterrence and           roll-out in 2040 will only be possible if all
sovereignty, which is reflected in the debate        measures run smoothly without delay,
on development at all levels. FCAS is un-            which is unlikely from today’s perspective.
deniably a nuclear project as well. Paris ar-        The most pressing issue is the regulation
ticulates this clearly; Berlin must not ignore       of IPRs.
this reality, but instead should also assert             We have to accept the fact that there will
their rights to shape it in this context. The        of course be some delays. Additional post-
future of nuclear sharing should be explicitly       ponements due to political ambiguities,
addressed in the next legislative period. If         lack of financial security and procedural
the German government simply allows FCAS             inconsistencies must, however, be avoided.
to continue in this direction, it will limit its     The German side is certainly lagging further
own scope for action, which may have con-            behind. A necessary vehicle for improve-
sequences for Germany’s role in NATO.                ment is a fundamental reform of the pro-
                                                     curement process.
                                                         Making the project a political priority
Outlook and Recommendations                          is both expedient and feasible in the short
                                                     term. In light of the political explosiveness
The different strategic cultures of Germany          and military significance of the project, a
and France are evident in many areas. FCAS           future German government should name
is another context which makes the partners          FCAS as a priority and European lighthouse
aware of their differences but at the same           project in the coalition agreement.
time also of their mutual dependence. From               Within the framework of a Defence Plan-
the French perspective, the project is both          ning Act as part of a reform of the arma-
an expression of European sovereignty and            ment process, the next project phases could
an essential component of national security          be defined and financed on a multi-annual
and industrial interests. In Germany, this           basis. On the one hand, this would send a
strategic significance is lost in a thicket of       strong signal to Paris, and, on the other, it
responsibilities within the procurement pro-         would provide planning security for the
cess. For the further course of the project, it is   German armed forces and industry.
important to change the way it is perceived.             In addition, the European perspective of
A stronger commitment on the part of the             the project must be expanded. This also in-
Federal Chancellery can help to achieve              cludes considering the project, particularly
this.                                                the NGF component, as an export commod-
    FCAS is not just another expensive arma-         ity and ensuring corresponding regulations.
ment project, it is so much more than that.          The task of future federal governments will
It aims to develop and cultivate technologi-         be firstly to fully integrate Spain and then
cal excellence within Europe that is capable         to find other partners in the medium term,
of having an impact far beyond the military          but as customers rather than developers.
sector. Applications such as secure Euro-            The later developers enter the project, the
pean cloud services or unmanned autono-              more complex their participation will be,
mous flight control are technology drivers           because construction sites that have already
whose potential is just as relevant for civil-       been closed would have to be reopened.
ian use. Development and data sovereignty            The NGWS part of the project, in particular,
are closely linked to the call for European          is further advanced than other comparable
products to be used as a matter of priority.         projects in Europe, such as the British Tem-

                                                                                                      SWP Comment 2
                                                                                                        January 2021

pest; further integration efforts should not
                                 endanger this lead.
                                    France, Spain and Germany currently do
                                 not have a fifth-generation fighter aircraft,
                                 unlike the UK or Italy, for example. For all
                                 three FCAS countries, the NGF is an essen-
                                 tial part of the future plans of their air
                                 forces. Technologically, however, the idea
                                 of moving straight from the fourth genera-
                                 tion to the sixth and setting the benchmark
© Stiftung Wissenschaft          is extremely challenging. Overly optimistic
und Politik, 2021                expectations should be tempered, irrespec-
All rights reserved              tive of justified ambition. The objective
                                 must be to develop a platform that repre-
This Comment reflects
                                 sents a significant advance on both the
the author’s views.
                                 Eurofighter and the Rafale and, moreover,
The online version of            is capable of competing with the F-35 in the
this publication contains        market. Defining a Generation 5+ such that
functioning links to other       the jet becomes the European standard,
SWP texts and other relevant
                                 would be better than coming up with an
                                 expensive solution that emulates the “real”
SWP Comments are subject         sixth generation but cannot be fully used
to internal peer review, fact-   by any state.
checking and copy-editing.          As far as the timetable is concerned,
For further information on       the issue may arise as to whether more
our quality control pro-
                                 emphasis should be placed on completing
cedures, please visit the SWP
website: https://www.swp-        the NGF portion. France’s interest in this is
berlin.org/en/about-swp/         likely to be very high, if only in view of its
quality-management-for-          lead role in this segment and the lack of
swp-publications/                alternatives in the area of combat aircraft.
                                 Although the overarching idea must be to
Stiftung Wissenschaft und
                                 see FCAS as a comprehensive system, priori-
Politik                          tising the most tangible part of the project
German Institute for             may be the most sensible move under cer-
International and                tain circumstances.
Security Affairs                    If this project is not successfully completed
                                 within a European framework, future major
Ludwigkirchplatz 3–4
10719 Berlin                     joint armament projects in Europe will
Telephone +49 30 880 07-0        become increasingly unlikely. Efforts to
Fax +49 30 880 07-100            consolidate European armament coopera-
www.swp-berlin.org               tion would be thwarted, and dependencies
                                 on US manufacturers would continue to
ISSN 1861-1761
                                 grow. The partners must remain acutely
doi: 10.18449/2021C02            aware of this pan-European responsibility.

(English version of
SWP-Aktuell 98/2020)

                                 Dominic Vogel is a Visiting Fellow with the International Security Research Division at SWP.

       SWP Comment 2
       January 2021

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