Arthur J. Villasanta – Fourth Estate Contributor
Berlin, Germany (4E) – After years of dithering, France, Germany and the United Kingdom have agreed to jointly develop their own stealth fighter, but still aren’t certain if they want a fifth-generation or a sixth-generation jet fighter.
This agreement, however, is an important step in advancing this long-stalled joint program. Since this program called the “Future Combat Air System (FCAS)” is expected to enter service with the Luftwaffe (German Air Force); the Armée de l’Air Française (French Air Force) and the Royal Air Force by 2040, the likelihood is this aircraft will be a sixth-generation fighter. The first test flights of a demonstrator aircraft is expected around 2025 and entry into service by 2040.
Fifth-generation fighters such as the Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighter are distinguished by their stealth capabilities that hide them from radar detection. On the other hand, sixth-generation fighters combine stealth with hypersonic speed (speeds in excess of Mach 5 or 6,000 km/h).
The U.S. Air Force and U.S. Navy are expected to deploy their first operational sixth-generation fighters from 2025 to 2030.
Sixth-generation concepts put forward by the U.S. Air Force and the Japan Air Self-Defense Force also envision their sixth-generation jets serving as “mother ships” controlling small squadrons of autonomous armed aerial drones. These stealthy drones act as wingmen protecting the mother ship while expanding the latter’s capability to strike at different targets or engage multiple aerial foes. These concepts envision two crewmen: the pilot and a co-pilot controlling the drones.
An idea of what Europe’s FCAS might look like can be gleaned from Germany’s sixth-generation fighter concept, also called FCAS. In March 2017, Germany and Airbus Defense and Space were in the initial stages of a new program to build the Luftwaffe’s sixth generation fighter, which they named FCAS.
FCAS will replace the Luftwaffe’s aging fleet of Panavia Tornado fighter bombers and complement the Luftwaffe’s Eurofighter Typhoon air superiority fighters. FCAS will likely be a twin-engine, twin-tail aircraft piloted by two crewmen. The Luftwaffe intends FCAS to be operational between 2030 to 2040.
FCAS will be a “system of systems” that combines manned and unmanned aircraft into one operational unit. “In principle, it could be a system of systems — either a manned and unmanned combination,” said Alberto Gutierrez, head of the Eurofighter program.
“(We have determined that unmanned combat air vehicles) UCAVs will not be at technology state ready by 2030-40 to support Eurofighters. It could be optionally manned, with two crew — one for command and control (and one pilot).”
A second crewmember is key for the FCAS concept of operations, which will have the fighter operate in a wider battle network, potentially as a command and control asset or UCAV/UAV mission commander. FCAS will also operate as a “networked node” controlling “missile truck UCAVs” and drone swarms in contested airspace.
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