Europe's Very Own 5th-Generation Stealth Fighter Could Be Just Around The Corner
A German-Franco collaboration could change the game.
Key point: The new fighter would have powerful electronic warfare capabilities, sensors and communication systems networked with low-earth orbit satellites.
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.
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.
It is telling that rather than boasting sexy kinematic flight-performance benchmarks or jaw-dropping airshow-style maneuvers Russian jets are known for, Airbus’s promotional video is all about selling a highly networked paradigm of warfare. The FCAS would simply be an element in an ecosystem of platforms including satellites, AWACS (airborne early warning and control), aerial refueling tankers and stealthy combat drones. Airbus has even suggested that the FCAS would not necessarily be a manned system.
However, the French military also would bring additional requirements of a more prosaic nature to any next-generation Euro jet: namely, adequate range to deploy overseas to Africa and operate from rugged airstrips. Basically, the French air force continues to fly a lot of expeditionary missions further afield, while the German air arm mostly doesn’t—though German Tornados did deploy for stint in Afghanistan during the mid-2000s.
It is important to appreciate that the Franco-German stealth fighter program remains more a political project than a technical reality—at least at least at this stage.
Whither the German F-35?
There is a bogey on the hypothetical European stealth jet’s radar.
There was another company attending the Berlin Air Show seductively whispering of a faster, easier alternative to home-growing stealth technology. And Germany’s aerial combat branch, but not its government, is definitely tempted.
This is of course Lockheed’s F-35 Lightning II, a highly stealthy fifth-generation platform with sophisticated sensors designed to network with friendly forces. One need only have the cash in hand and accept that the profits will flow to the United States, not Europe. For better or worse, the Lightning is optimized more for ground attack than air superiority, and it is has suffered from an infamous number of teething problems, cost overruns and delays.
Still, Luftwaffe needs to replace its aging Tornado strike planes sooner rather than later (ie, the 2020s). German fighters are in an awful state due to years of neglect, with only 28 percent in operational condition according to a recent report. Berlin could elect to purchase additional Typhoons—though optimized for the air superiority role, the Eurofighter would still be capable carriers of standoff cruise missiles such as those French and English fighters launched in an April 2018 attack on Syria.
However, the Luftwaffe itself has reportedly indicated its “preferred choice” is the F-35 so it can join the ‘stealth club’ and have the capability to penetrate airspace defended by sophisticated surface-to-air missile systems. This would even have relevance to a European defense scenario, as Russian S-400 air defense systems in Kaliningrad could hypothetically interdict a wide swath of airspace over Poland extending even into eastern Germany—a threat stealth fighters could deal with far easier than fourth-generation jets. There also could be benefits from pooling resources with other F-35 operators in Europe.
But for Berlin, the political incentives for a French fighter deal are more attractive than buying from the United States, while the deep penetration strike ability is not seen as important for today’s Germany. One should not forget the frosty temperature of German-American relations in the Trump era, now spiced with talk of trade wars. The Luftwaffe’s chief general, Karl Muellner, was first reprimanded and then forced to resign for his outspoken support for buying F-35s.
Another issue is how the Luftwaffe will replace the Tornado’s nuclear weapon capability, which it must maintain as part of NATO’s nuclear-weapons sharing policy. (To clarify, the nukes are American, but German planes are required to have the capability to carry them.) American think tanks and Lockheed Martin have suggested that modifying and certifying the Typhoon for nuclear weapons delivery would prove highly expensive and time-consuming. Eurofighter has maintained it could easily be achieved by 2025, and insinuates that Lockheed might artificially delay certification as a means to gain leverage.
Airbus Defense CEO Dirk Hoke has directly stated that buying F-35s over Tornados would likely kill the FCAS program. While Hoke’s comment is obviously self-interested, it is hard to conceive of Germany paying for two stealth fighters. The F-35 would not only come at a steep cost on the short term, but money for logistical services and spare parts would flow to Lockheed for decades.
Therefore, Airbus has specifically pitched a European stealth fighter in terms of keeping the business in Europe—not only for economic reasons, but because if European nations don’t continue investing in domestic jet fighter production, they may rapidly and permanently lose the industrial base and know-how to do so in the future.
The proposed Franco-German collaboration also remains awkwardly juxtaposed with a Franco-British project initiated in pre-Brexit to develop a stealthy Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicle (ie, an armed drone), also confusingly called the Future Combat Air System. This would combine technologies developed under the BAE Taranis and the French nEUROn stealth drones, both of which have been tested. The funding prospects for the project are hazy, especially post-Brexit, though the Taranis said to amount to a highly capable low-observable weapons platform. The FCAS drone is intended to complement, not replace, fourth- and fifth-generation fighters. Still, it must also draw funding from the same pool of money.
Ultimately, a European stealth fighter program would take decades and cost tens of billions of euros. If France and Germany want the jet by 2040, they will have to start committing major financial resources relatively soon. Right now, however, the EU leaders are still in an exploratory phase where they are feeling out their respective political and military priorities and trying to decide if they are ready for such a long-term commitment.
Sébastien Roblin holds a Master’s Degree in Conflict Resolution from Georgetown University and served as a university instructor for the Peace Corps in China. He has also worked in education, editing, and refugee resettlement in France and the United States. He currently writes on security and military history for War Is Boring. (This first appeared last year.)