The Future is Now

In TMB-19, Airbus Defence and Space unveiled the roadmap to 2040

Ghazala Wahab

Donauworth/ Manching: Contested future operational environment, military and quasi-military threats, diminishing budgets, need for multirole platforms and low-cost disruptive technologies are some of the challenges that have been engaging Airbus Defence and Space (DS) for the last couple of years.

The hangar converted into a briefing hall during TMB-19

The answer to these was unveiled at the recently concluded Trade Media Briefing (TMB-19) held after a pause of three years. Airbus DS invited nearly two score journalists from around the world to showcase what it had been up to in the intervening years between the two TMBs.

FCAS — future combat air system – was the fulcrum around which two and half days were spent in Airbus DS’ German facilities. FCAS envisages a system of systems that will enable new generation manned fighter aircraft to operate alongside unmanned remote carriers in GPS-denied, spectrum and cyber-challenged environment. Hence, the programme will develop a new generation aircraft, stealthy to the extent of being invisible; unmanned systems with a high degree of autonomy; and inviolable communication networks that keep the ground, maritime and airborne forces in the real-time ‘impregnable’ loop.

Opening TMB-19, head of FCAS System of Systems, Bruno Fichefeux said, FCAS will create a cyber-proof environment for manned and unmanned platforms to operate on a common mission because, “Highly denied environments will require the collaborative capabilities of many pooled platforms.” And for the efficiency and security of those platforms, FCAS will create an air combat cloud that will ensconce all these elements in a secure bubble during operational deployments.

What’s more, the air combat cloud will accelerate the OODA (Observe, Orient, Decide and Act) loop by sharing real-time interpretative data and enable decentralised command and control. Essentially, FCAS will improve the reach, speed, efficiency and security of future operations.

FCAS was envisaged as a German-French programme, the agreement for which was signed at the Berlin Air Show (ILA) 2018. A year later, at 2019 Paris Air Show, Spain joined the programme which claims to be driven by the concept of European sovereignty. Hence, while some parts of the developed technologies may be exportable, most of it essentially will remain with partner nations.

Anyway, those are the decisions that will be addressed when FCAS is ready to be operationalised in 2040. Meanwhile, the partner companies — Airbus for Germany and Spain, and Dassault Aviation for France — are working towards producing the demonstrators by the middle of the next decade to validate their work and the costs involved. The demonstrators will include the NG fighter, new engine, remote carrier and air combat cloud among others components like sensors. Airbus expects to carry out the demonstration flight of the NG fighter and the remote carrier in the decade of 2025-2035.

But the road ahead will not be easy for FCAS, just as the “Agreement was not a walk in the park, given our history,” said CEO, Airbus DS, Dirk Hoke, hitting the nail right on the head. “(Emmanuel) Macron’s election in France and (Angela) Merkel’s re-election in Germany paved the way for cooperation,” he added.

German-French defence-industrial cooperation is nothing new. In 2015, French Nexter had joined hands with German Kraus-Maffei Wegmann (KMW) to create a merged identity KMW-Nexter Defence Systems (KNDS). Earlier this year, Airbus divested company Hensoldt agreed to buy majority stake in the French company Nexeya. Moreover, Airbus itself, like MBDA, is an epitome of collaborative European enterprise.

Yet, despite these precedents, FCAS is a new experiment for two reasons.

One, it is not a commercial entity, but a joint defence industrial development programme aimed at national defence, hence the claim of ‘European sovereignty’ even though right now only three nations are involved. This implies that the three nations have identified similar futuristic threats to themselves, thereby bringing about a confluence of national interests.

CEO Airbus DS Dirk Hoke

Two, this suggests that the three participating nations are no longer banking upon trans-Atlantic nation for their defence. Could this be triggered by Brexit or an inward-looking United States?

Of course, none from Airbus would answer a question like this officially. But unofficially one of the senior executives told FORCE over dinner, “Let’s just say that we no longer view our threats being the same as our allied partners.”

Moreover, the continental threat that build this framework no longer seems what it used to be. As an aside, to ensure that this message was understood well, TMB took a detour to one of the German Air bases to showcase the Eurofighter operations, where the commander of the Eurofighter fleet shared nuggets about their friendly and not-so-friendly encounters with the Russian Air Force. His bottom line was — ‘they are doing their job. We are doing ours.’

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