Berlin looks to build Future Combat Aircraft System consortium

Germany is looking at the potential of building a next-generation combat aircraft with at least France, Spain and Sweden as possible partners. There are indications that preliminary talks with these nations have already taken place. 

Luftwaffe Tornado over northern Germany. Credit: Gert Kromhout/Stocktrek Images

By Douglas Barrie, Senior Fellow for Military Aerospace

As of the second quarter of 2017, London remained outside of any recent discussions, despite the United Kingdom partnering Germany in the two previous generations of combat aircraft – the 1970s Tornado and 1980s Eurofighter programmes.

The UK is already working with France on an unmanned combat air vehicle (UCAV) demonstrator, one of the main collaborative projects that has resulted from the 2010 Anglo-French Defence Treaty, with the UK’s BAE Systems and France’s Dassault involved. Both countries have also begun to consider possible crewed-combat-aircraft requirements for the 2030s and 2040s. However, the medium-term outlook for the joint UCAV project is unclear. The UK’s decision to leave the European Union is an unwelcome complicating factor in British participation in future collaborative projects, at least in the near term, as is the political uncertainty in London post the general election.

The outcome of Germany’s deliberations and the possible emergence of a multinational project have far-reaching industrial ramifications. A tie-up between Berlin and Paris on a next-generation combat-aircraft development would place Airbus Defence in a strong position. What remains to be seen is how Dassault, France’s national combat-aircraft manufacturer, would be accommodated. Meanwhile, BAE Systems has carried out classified research into next-generation combat-aircraft concepts for the UK Ministry of Defence and is also involved in supporting Turkish aspirations to develop an advanced combat aircraft.

Berlin is looking to use its Next Generation Weapon System (NGWS)/ Future Combat Air System (FCAS) as the potential basis for a European combat-aircraft programme that would provide a successor to the Tornado ground-attack aircraft by around 2035. A decision on how to pursue a replacement could be taken by the end of 2018.

The requirement, however, could be made more complex by the likelihood of replacing the Eurofighter in the 2040s: the Eurofighter is a design optimised for air-to-air, but with a secondary air-to-surface capability. Furthermore, the German Tornado squadrons are tasked with a NATO nuclear role.

Berlin has a number of options with regard to the timing and nature of the type of platform it selects to replace the Tornado – or at least some of the roles the aircraft fulfils. Alongside a new design, other nearer-term options include the acquisition of the US F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, or ordering an additional batch of the Eurofighter. The dual-capable Tornado can carry the US B61 free-fall nuclear bomb, and the B61-12 version of this weapon is planned to be integrated on the F-35A by 2020.  Were a new batch of the Eurofighter to be ordered, perhaps a ‘Tranche 4’ standard, then one option would be to integrate the B61 on the Eurofighter. If the F-35 or Eurofighter option was chosen, the Tornado could be replaced from around 2025, with 40–50 of the selected type to be purchased.

An interim combat-aircraft purchase would not necessarily negate moving ahead with NGWS/FCAS, since Germany’s Eurofighter combat aircraft would still likely need replacing in the 2040s. The type selected as a ’stop-gap’, however, would likely influence the design emphasis for a NGWS/FCAS. Were an F-35 variant to be chosen, the FCAS emphasis might be more toward the air-to-air role, given that the F-35 is optimised for air-to-surface missions with a secondary air-to-air capability.

The German Air Force is also looking at NGWS/FCAS as a possible way to exploit ’manned-unmanned teaming’, with the crewed aircraft also having the ability to operate with and to control off-board platforms such as unmanned combat air vehicles.

This analysis originally featured on the Military Balance+, the new IISS online database that enables users in government, the armed forces and the private sector, as well as academia and the media, to make faster and better-informed decisions. The Military Balance+ allows users to customise, view, compare and download data instantly, anywhere, anytime.

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