Introduction: Understanding the European Fighter Initiatives
In this article, we aim to clarify the distinctions between the British Future Combat Air System (FCAS), the Franco-German-Spanish FCAS (SCAF), the British-Italian-Japanese Global Combat Air Program (GCAP), and other 6th generation fighter development initiatives in Europe. With Europe’s objective of delivering two separate sixth-generation fighter jets by 2040, the terminology and overlapping project names have created confusion. We will provide an overview to help navigate through this complexity.
FCAS: Future Combat Air System
The United Kingdom (UK) initially announced its intention to launch the Future Combat Air System Technology Initiative (FCAS TI) in 2015.
FCAS aimed to leverage British industrial technologies to develop new aircraft or future capabilities to replace the Royal Air Force’s Eurofighter Typhoons. It was also designed with an “international by design” approach, seeking partnerships to develop a sixth-generation aircraft and maximize export potential.
The FCAS concept was further defined as “several international air systems or projects under development, including the UK’s program to replace Typhoon capabilities from 2040.” The UK unveiled the Tempest “concept aircraft” in 2018, showcasing collaboration with BAE Systems, Leonardo, MBDA, and Rolls-Royce under “Team Tempest.” The UK is also working closely with Italy in this endeavor.
Is Tempest Different from FCAS?
Tempest represents the fighter research and development (R&D) effort within FCAS. While FCAS encompasses a “family of systems” and the development of various technologies, Tempest specifically focuses on fighter aircraft.
The UK does not have a fixed budget or production commitment for a specific number of Tempest fighters. The final product may even undergo significant design changes in the future.
A Tempest demonstration is planned for 2027, which will provide valuable insights into the capabilities of the new fighter. Based on the knowledge gained, the UK may proceed with a similar design or explore alternative directions. The final configuration will become clearer in the coming years.
Italy’s Involvement in FCAS
In September 2019, Italy joined the FCAS effort through a declaration of intent agreement with the UK. British and Italian industries agreed to collaborate on developing a future fighter aircraft.
Italy’s decision to join FCAS was driven by its ambition to play a significant role in the project compared to the Franco-German-Spanish FCAS program. Italy recognized the opportunities for contribution and partnership within the UK-led initiative.
Sweden’s Role in European Fighter Partnerships
Understanding the complexity of new partnerships and their interconnections, the UK and Sweden signed a Memorandum of Understanding in July 2019. The agreement focused on a “joint fighter aircraft development and acquisition program” to meet the future requirements of both nations.
However, Sweden’s involvement concerns FCAS technologies rather than a direct partnership for fighter jet development. Swedish manufacturer Saab has indicated that it is no longer part of FCAS, signaling reduced industrial activity.
Exploring the Global Combat Air Program (GCAP)
Announced in late 2022, GCAP involves the participation of the UK, Italy, and Japan. Its ultimate objective is to deliver a sixth-generation fighter by 2035, supported by unmanned aircraft, combat drones, new weapons, and advanced data systems.
The development of these fighters and support aircraft will eventually replace the British and Italian Eurofighter Typhoons and Japan’s Mitsubishi F-2 platforms.
Commencement of GCAP Development Phase
The “core platform concept” of GCAP is set to begin in 2025, with all partners expected to sign a cost-sharing agreement beforehand. This agreement will be based on a joint assessment of costs and national budgets, as stated by the British Ministry of Defence.
Potential Expansion of GCAP Partnerships
The UK has expressed openness to exploring additional partnerships that would mutually benefit all parties involved. This could involve sharing knowledge and development costs with other interested nations.
FCAS and GCAP: Different Programs with Similar Objectives
While both FCAS and GCAP aim to develop future fighter capabilities, they are distinct programs with specific focuses. FCAS emphasizes the development of a piloted supersonic fighter for demonstration purposes, relying heavily on UK industry and technologies.
On the other hand, GCAP involves the joint efforts of the UK, Italy, and Japan to develop and assemble a fully operational, standalone sixth-generation fighter that meets the combat air needs of all three nations.
Japan’s Inclusion in European Fighter Projects
Japan’s involvement in European fighter initiatives, alongside the UK and Italy, may initially seem surprising. However, Japan has been actively engaged in FCAS at an industrial level before establishing GCAP.
Notably, the UK and Japan announced a joint engine demonstration program for future fighters in December 2021. The collaboration involves Rolls-Royce and BAE Systems from the UK side and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries and IHI from the Japanese side.
Japan’s significant economic influence and its own advancements in stealth aircraft technologies make it a valuable partner for the UK and Italy.
SCAF: Système de Combat Aérien du Futur
It is essential to clarify the distinction between the UK-led FCAS and the Franco-German-Spanish program known as SCAF. The French primarily refer to their initiative as Système de Combat Aérien du Futur announced at the 2019 Paris Air Show.
However, there is still some confusion as the Spanish often continue to use the term FCAS. SCAF aims to replace the French Rafale and the German and Spanish Eurofighter Typhoons.
Structure of SCAF
SCAF represents a comprehensive framework that includes the New Generation Weapons System (NGWS). Within NGWS, three key areas are encompassed: the Next Generation Fighter (NGF), remote carrier (RC) or attached aircraft, and Combat Air Cloud (CC) network capability.
Development Phases of SCAF
Airbus and Dassault, the main NGF demonstrator contractors, signed a Phase 1B contract in December 2022. This contract paves the way for developing an NGF prototype scheduled for its first flight in 2029. Disagreements over work-sharing between Airbus and Dassault caused a two-year delay in the original schedule. The fully operational NGF is planned to be ready by 2040.
The NGF prototype testing will run concurrently with other industrial activities, including engine demonstrations, remote carriers, Combat Air Cloud (CC) network, sensors, and low-level observation.
Challenges in European Fighter Cooperation
Historically, Franco-German joint defense programs have encountered difficulties, and FCAS seems to follow the same pattern. Task-sharing disagreements and diverging operational needs have caused challenges. France places greater emphasis on nuclear launch and long-range strike missions, while Germany has faced political opposition to equipping aircraft with nuclear weapons and has chosen the F-35 for that role.
Okay, wait, who’s doing what with whom?
- FCAS: United Kingdom
- TEMPEST: UK, Italy and Japan
- GCAP: UK, Italy and Japan
- SCAF: France, Germany and Spain
Pursuing a Unified Approach: Interoperability and Cooperation
Considering these countries’ NATO membership or partnership, it would seem logical to develop a single aircraft instead of two opposing ones, promoting interoperability. However, the current approach is focused on individual programs. The CEOs of major European defense companies involved in these initiatives have preferred not to revisit this topic.
In conclusion, the UK, Italy, and Japan are collaborating on GCAP, which aims to deliver a sixth-generation fighter by 2035.
FCAS, led by the UK, focuses on developing a demonstration-piloted supersonic fighter. SCAF, driven by France, Germany, and Spain, seeks to replace existing fighter jets with a comprehensive New Generation Weapons System. While challenges exist in European fighter cooperation, each program is progressing independently with its specific objectives in mind.