At a briefing in Munich, Airbus Defence & Space unveiled a glimpse of a future strike fighter concept of the 2030-40s designed to replace the Tornado. TIM ROBINSON reports.

Airbus Defence and Space's FCAS concept will inform Bundeswehr plans for a potentional successor to the Tornado. (AirbusDS)

With a growing realisation that it needs to think about modernising parts of its aging front-line force, in January, the German Bundeswehr released a White Paper on future plans and proposals. One of these, the Next Generation Weapon System (NGWS) is intended to replace the Tornado which the Luftwaffe may keep in service until 2040 – some 20 years after the RAF will have retired its last GR4.

Among the many and varied presentations covering A400M, MRTT, and light and medium products at the annual Airbus Defence and Space (AirbusDS) TMB (Trade Media Briefing) in Munich this year, also saw the company unveil its concept for a FCAS (Future Combat Air System) to meet the Luftwaffe‘s evolving requirement for the 2030-40 timeframe.

Though it is still early days and the concept is still notional, it did reveal some of the company’s thinking around its FCAS. Interestingly the twin-engine, twin-tail stealth design would be a twin-seat design, according to Alberto Gutierrez, Head of Eurofighter Programme, Airbus DS. The second crewmember may be especially important for the FCAS concept of operations, which would see it operate in a wider battle network, potentially as a command and control asset or UCAV/UAV mission commander.

Another presentation on UAVs during TMB16, also shed light on the FCAS concept of operations. AirbusDS foresee it is not a strike aircraft in itself - but rather part of a 'system of systems' – with this manned strike platform networked with Eurofighters, unmanned bomb or missile 'mules' and even UAV swarms. FCAS, says AirbuDS, is conceptualised to be a platform able to slot into a scalable system.

This vision closely aligns with the latest US Pentagon predictions on future air combat – where manned platforms such as F-35 and B-21 would operate as networked nodes, controlling missile 'truck' UCAVs and drone swarms in contested airspace.

Connectivity, not platforms is key

Can tankers be turned into comms, ISR or SIGINT nodes? (AirbusDS)

While AirbusDS today is wrestling with more immediate concerns (well publicised A400M problems with gearboxes being the highest priority), Fernando Alonso, Head of Military Aircraft last year instituted a strategic review of what air combat would look like in the future and how it needs to evolve its business and offerings. Though the future strategy has yet to be completed, the FCAS systems of systems provides a clue to AirbusDS’s vision. "Connectivity not platforms" says Alonso, will be the way forward, arguing that the challenge and opportunity for the company will be "how to connect those platforms together“.

Other presentations during the two days of TMB supported this vision of legacy platforms being enhanced with networks. For instance, a JRE (Joint Range Extension) Link 16 capability is now set to be added to French A330MRTTs currently on order. This will turn tankers into Link 16 data relay nodes – boosting situational awareness for platforms operating beyond line-of-sight. Australia, too, is reported to be interested in this capability for its MRTTs.

AirbusDS is also set to take high-speed data transfer even further with a high-speed optical communications test later this year. This will see the European Data Relay Satellite (EDRS-A) use a laser to connect with a modified A310 test aircraft equipped with a prototype laser terminal. Optical laser communication promises a 1-2 orders of magnitude increase in air-to-sat data speeds, compared to normal satcom links. Laser communications then could offer ultra-high speed, secure communications – especially suitable for the vast amounts of video, imagery and data that now need to flow around the battlefield.

Although certainly not a new concept (network centric warfare was championed in the US in the late 1990s), AirbusDS's vision of connectivity is particularly important today – given the continued budget pressures and legacy fleets that many air forces are faced with. Today, thanks to smaller, cheaper and more capable computers, the ability of networks to adapt and reconfigure on the fly (think smartphone‘s WiFi), is much more advanced and opens up new possibilities for air combat. Could tactical transports become ISR nodes? Or tankers become ELINT spy planes to help triangulate hostile emitters?

Summary


Another illustration from AirbusDS shows how the FCAS network would 'scale' upwards. Note external fuel tanks and Meteors. (AirbusDS). 

This new concept for a Tornado successor shows that Airbus Group still intends to remain in the combat aircraft business – post-Eurofighter. However it joins a crowded market. For one, there is already another European FCAS – the Anglo-French project. If (hypothetically) Germany was invited to join this project, would that incorporate NGWS as a stealthy strike platform? Or will two separate European FCAS's co-exist – one a UCAV, the other a manned strike platform?

Another competitor is, of course, F-35, which unlike some other European nations, Germany has not signed up to. By the 2030-40s the F-35 will have matured and its capabilities will have developed even further. Export restrictions too, for the F-35, might have been loosened by then, which could cut into any export potential for FCAS.  It is also noteworthy that in the briefing slide on FCAS from AirbusDS '"gives operational sovereignty to the customers" is highlighted as an advantage. 

However, this concept for a Tornado is also important in a comment from Gutierrez that FCAS could be open beyond Europe to international partners. Could AirbusDS's FCAS be the basis for a European-style JSF programme, with multinational collaboration? It is still early days yet, and the NGWS is still to be fully defined by the customer, but AirbusDS's FCAS is significant, in that it shows that Europe has not quite given up on manned combat aircraft for the future. As a briefing slide points out, FCAS ""secures existing defence industrial base and promotes innovation and growth over a wider spectrum of technologies".


5 July 2016