Belgium Has Joined the FCAS Program - In June, Belgium joined the multi-national Future Combat Air System (FCAS) program as an observer. However, in late November, a fourth partner nation behind Germany, France, and Spain to develop a sixth-generation aircraft and supporting systems.
Ludivine Dedonder, Belgium's defense minister, announced the expected timeline via a LinkedIn post. Brussels will also sign an FCAS observer status membership agreement next month, according to Dedonder, which she referred to as a "crucial step towards global security and innovation."
"The development of a next-generation air combat capability is a unique opportunity for Europe. In doing so, Belgium is committed to peace, stability and innovation in defence, building together a secure and prosperous future for our nation and our partners," Dedoner explained.
Details about Belgium's future role in the FCAS program as a full-time partner have not been disclosed. Currently, France's Dassault, Germany's Airbus, and Spain's Indra make up a trio of FCAS industry leads, committed to the development of a Next Generation Fighter (NGF), as well as Remote Carriers or adjunct aircraft and an "Air Combat Cloud," designed as a multi-domain capable, data-rich network, allowing cross-platform information sharing.
The goal of the program is to replace France's Rafales, Germany's Typhoons, and Spain's EF-18 Hornets. The NGF will be able to deploy autonomously or via a network with other airborne, naval, land, and even space-based combat or command systems.
A test flight demonstrator is expected around 2027.
An Internet of Military Things
The Air Combat Cloud part of the effort has been described as an important part of the "Internet Military Things," and it will reportedly provide common situational awareness by instantaneously capturing, sharing, fusing, and processing massive amounts of data from all connected manned and unmanned platforms in a trusted manner, and transforming this data into actionable information by leveraging the ever-evolving learning technologies.
"The concept based on the air cloud is that all elements must constantly interoperate with each other to form a cohesive system that is informed as one and combat as one," explained Mark Paskowski, program manager of FCAS Combat Cloud.
"Our 'operating system' will need to be an open one to accommodate both off-the-shelf and bespoke applications such as manned-unmanned teaming, from Airbus or any other industrial partner. It will be an evolutionary one, with new applications such as new aerial platforms being integrated along the way," added Ignacio Rosell, FCAS Combat Cloud Product Solution lead at Airbus. "Our business model around the Combat Cloud won't be unique. An area such as satellite connectivity could be offered as a service, while an 'app' part of an aircraft’s mission system could be sold as a product."
Turbulence in the Skies?
The three primary partner nations have to date pledged 3.2 billion euros for phase 1B, which runs for three and a half years, with an option for a further five billion euros for phase 2.
FCAS has been seen as crucial to European strategic autonomy, as it could further strengthen political and military ties between two of its biggest economies while enhancing the European aerospace industry.
However, the problem has not been without some issues between the partners.
Airbus and Dassault had frequently been at odds, and only in November 2023 did they finally reach an agreement on starting the next development phase.
Some sources suggested the blame lay with Dassault, as the French company had refused to budge in a long-running row over intellectual property rights – while others argued that Airbus was pushing for a bigger workshare of the Dassault-led project, insisting it should be given "equal footing" with the French company.
More Program Controversy for FCAS
Belgium's entry into the program has also been controversial.
In fact, Brussels' decision to join the FCAS program had been firmly opposed by Dassault because of Belgium's decision to procure U.S.-made F-35s over French Rafale jets.
Dassault CEO Eric Trappier had even stated that he would fight against any future decision about letting Brussels join the program and giving Belgian firms FCAS-related contracts.
"I hear about the Belgians' [interest in FCAS]. That's all very well," he said, as quoted by Breaking Defense. "I don't really see the point in putting more F-35 countries into the program. Why would I make room in my factory, in my design office, for people who have chosen the F-35?"
It was in late 2022 that Berlin also announced it would join the Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II program, joining several other NATO member nations in adopting the fifth-generation stealth fighter. The aerospace and defense giant further announced it would actively explore opportunities to develop an industrial participation program that will enable partnerships across the German industry and create jobs in F-35's manufacturing, sustainment, training, research, and development.
However, Germany remains committed to the FCAS program, and it was in November 2023 that a French official announced that the program is now weighing four different fighter designs for the FCAS.
Author Experience and Expertise
Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer. He has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers, and websites with over 3,200 published pieces over a twenty-year career in journalism. He regularly writes about military hardware, firearms history, cybersecurity, politics, and international affairs. Peter is also a Contributing Writer for Forbes and Clearance Jobs. You can follow him on Twitter: @PeterSuciu.