Will Germany and France Develop Europe's First Stealth Fighter?
The French Armée de l’Aire and the German Luftwaffe are at a crossroads: by now, both countries have established their respective 4.5-generation fighters into service, the Dassault Rafale and the Eurofighter Typhoon. Both highly capable jets are planned to remain operational for at least two more decades. However, the European leaders lack true fifth-generation stealth aircraft to replace them—and no such plane is close to being developed, as embarking on such a project would be monstrously expensive. Indeed, Japan seems to be backing away from developing its own stealth jet despite having built a flying demonstrator.
Berlin, Paris and London have historically preferred to purchase major weapon systems from their domestic arms industry rather than shopping abroad. The high cost of developing jet fighters has compelled European capitals to pool development costs and work together, producing aircraft such as the Franco-German Alpha Jet trainer and the Franco-British Jaguar attack jet.
However, the independent-minded French have often decided to go their own way, resulting in their Mirage 2000 and Rafale fighters. This left Germany collaborating with the United Kingdom and Italy on both its earlier swing Tornado strike jet and newer Typhoon air-superiority fighter.
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Brexit, however, has changed Berlin’s foreign policy calculations. French president Emmanuel Macron and German chancellor Angela Merkel hope that the next European jet fighter will be a collaboration between the European Union’s two largest remaining economies. Deteriorating relations with Russia, and Euro- and NATO-skeptic rhetoric from the Trump administration have also compelled the two continental powers to deepen their military cooperation. France and Germany are contemplating a jointly produced Leopard 3 tank to replace the Leclerc and Leopard 2 main battle tanks sometime in the 2030s.
The proposal for a Franco-German stealth fighter was first publicly aired by Macron and Merkel in Paris on July 13, 2017. As BAE’s participation was not invited, the move was understood as snub to England.
Next, at the Berlin Air Show on April 26, 2018, Airbus (jointly owned by Germany, France and Spain) announced that it would partner with French Dassault for the Future Combat Air System (FCAS). A new development roadmap includes a flying demonstrator by 2025 and production aircraft entering service by 2040.
What Would the FCAS Be Able to Do?
Airbus already floated fifth-generation fighter concepts in an earlier German-oriented program creatively titled the Next Generation Weapon System. In 2017, Airbus released a promotional video spelling out the wide array of capabilities it was looking to incorporate in the FCAS. Many of the proposed technologies appear to replicate capabilities the U.S. F-35 is known for: low-observable characteristics to allow penetration of hostile air defense systems; powerful sensors including a synthetic aperture radar capable of identifying enemy targets; and data fusion of sensor data with friendly forces, allowing an FCAS to enhance fourth-generation fighter assets.
The new fighter would have powerful electronic warfare capabilities, sensors and communication systems networked with low-earth orbit satellites. It would also have the ability to manage stealthy drones deploying both kinetic payloads and electronic warfare systems—a concept known as manned-unmanned teaming. Other technologies mooted at various points include laser weapons, advanced cybersecurity to protect against hacking and AI-assisted piloting aids.