France believes that the country’s sovereignty is at stake and therefore the new warplane should have the ability to fire nuclear weapons and operate from aircraft carriers.
The importance that Paris has attached to these two requirements is unusual in such cooperative projects.
“France has a specific policy about deterrence,” Major General Jean-Pascal Breton, the French lead for the Future Combat Air System, told the conference. “That’s why we don’t want any countries to dictate to us what to do.”
One of the country’s strategic deterrents include the nuclear-tipped ASMP cruise missiles, made by MBDA. Because the special delivery aircraft — the Rafale and Mirage — will be phased out, a future Franco-German aerial weapon will have to replace it.
Analysts are currently studying four variants for the main, manned, combat aircraft, which is called the next-generation fighter, or the FCAS, Breton said. Airbus and Dassault are the main contractors for the FCAS program.
Airbus – not Thales – will be working on the Combat Cloud Ecosystem, a “system of systems” to direct lethal and coordinated weapons. According to Breton, Thales was not considered because “there will be a European answer” to the new integrated system.
France’s atomic-weapons requirement dictates that the central fighter aircraft for the FCAS system must be manned, Breton told reporters. He said a drone would only be able to fire French nuclear-tipped cruise missiles if politicians allowed it: “It’s a political decision. For the moment, we don’t see it.” But Breton added that such limitations could change in the future.
According to him, the joint project foresees agreement on an architecture strategy in 2020, building a demonstrator platform in 2025 or 2026, and freezing the design specifications in 2030 to enable manufacturing in time for a 2040 fielding date.
Already France’s naval carrier design has specific requirements for how planes take off and land on short runways at sea.
Even if Germany needs none of these features required by France, officials from both countries insisted the differences would be addressed as the joint program progresses. The Germans are hoping that the system’s envisioned modular architecture will help limit country-specific variations, Defence News reported.
Brigadier General Gerald Funke, the German Air Force’s chief on the project, brushed aside the concerns. He said that the functioning would be similar to that of a smartphone: The hardware is more or less the same, while interchangeable “apps” provide the desired military outcome.
French defense officials are also planning to include dedicated combat drones in Future Combat Air System platforms, the fruit of a long joint project with the United Kingdom. Such carrier-capable unmanned aircraft designed to strike targets deep behind enemy lines, would be bigger than the usual drones deployed around the manned aircraft.
Spain is expected to formally join the project soon and will be signing cooperation documents in the next few months.
The United Kingdom meanwhile has its own next-generation air project cooking, called the Tempest. “When it’s possible to include Tempest at a later time, we will do that,” Breton noted.