FCAS Nations Studying Fighter/Remote Carrier Options

Credit: Airbus Defense and Space

LYON, France—The trinational Future Combat Air System (FCAS) team is considering various arrangements between the New Generation Fighter (NGF) and its associated remote carriers, aiming to 2027 for first flight of the demonstrators.

In the “combined project team,” based in Arcueil outside Paris, 26 specialists from France, Germany and Spain have been working together since October. They were charged with specifying operational needs and managing the program, says Eva Portier, engineer general at the French armament procurement agency DGA.

During the ongoing phase 1A, three ideas for the NGF and six for the remote carriers—unmanned air vehicles flying in concert with the NGF—are being worked on. On the prime contractor side, Airbus, Dassault and Indra are involved in the joint concept study. The goal is to converge on a configuration by the end of Phase 1B in 2024.

Two families of remote carriers may coexist. Some could be launched from the NGF, while others could take off from the ground or a ship. All will operate under the authority of an NGF.

Some remote carriers may be reusable and others expendable. Some may act as wingmen, under a still-to-be-clarified concept, while others may resemble cruise missiles. One type may carry a non-kinetic payload aimed at jamming adversary defenses, paving the way for crewed fighters.

Other missions may include decoying, as well as inundating adverse systems with a large number of small unmanned aircraft. This would enable a squadron to operate in a larger territory.

As every remote carrier will be used as a sensor, the human operator will make decisions with a more accurate perception of the force’s environment, Portier says.

Among the key aspects being worked on for the NGF are the tradeoff between stealth and maneuverability, as well as modularity to accommodate payload and range needs.

The NGF is at the center of the Next Generation Weapon System (NGWS), which also encompasses the remote carriers and a combat cloud—a data-based array of collaborative services enabling the elements to operate in network. In turn, the NGWS is part of the FCAS, with components such as other fighters, tankers and ships. While the NGWS will be common to France, Germany and Spain, each country may have its own FCAS.

The demonstration phase is to involve one NGF demonstrator and two remote carrier demonstrators—one expendable and one reusable. The inflight evaluation phase, named Phase 3 and to start in 2027, has yet to be defined. It will follow Phase 2 (2024-27), which is to focus on the detailed design and construction of the demonstrators. Phase 1B (2021-24) can be described as a research and technology step that will culminate with a precise definition of the demonstrators.

Phase 1B and 2 have just been agreed upon by the three governments, after Airbus and Dassault submitted an arrangement at the prime contractor level. Approval by the German parliament in late June is expected to be the final greenlight, allowing the three governments to give a formal go-ahead to Phase 1B a few days later.

Entry into service of the NGWS is targeted for 2040. “In 2030, everything has to be clearly defined,” Portier says. Wind tunnel testing on reduced-scale models will begin this year.

Meanwhile, the DGA has begun inflight trials for the Rafale F4.1 standard, characterized as one of the first elements in the French FCAS. From April 26-29, two Rafales brought to the latest development stage of the F4.1 standard participated in eight missions. Another six Rafales (from both the Air and Space Force and the Navy) were involved, as well as two Mirage 2000s and two Alphajets.

The F4.1 standard will feature the ability to carry 1,000 kg (2,200 lb.) AASM air-to-ground weapons, improved radar and countermeasures and a Thales Scorpion helmet-mounted display, which was tested last month. The French forces will receive their first retrofitted and new Rafale F4.1s in 2023 and 2024, respectively.

This past week, the Croatian media have reported that the Rafale has been selected for a secondhand sales contract.

Thierry Dubois

Thierry Dubois has specialized in aerospace journalism since 1997. An engineer in fluid dynamics from Toulouse-based Enseeiht, he covers the French commercial aviation, defense and space industries. His expertise extends to all things technology in Europe. Thierry is also the editor-in-chief of Aviation Week’s ShowNews.