Europe is forging ahead with not one, but two sixth-generation fighter projects. First, Britain’s BAE Systems Tempest fighter is expected to reach initial operating capability (IOC) in 2035. Meanwhile, the German-French-Spanish Future Combat Air System (FCAS) is slated to enter service by 2040.
Europe’s next-generation fighter ambitions have spurred concerns that there are not enough operational requirements to justify two concurrent projects. As aptly explained by Tony Osborne, Aviation Week’s London bureau chief, these fears are largely misplaced. The Tempest program is an attempt to procure a relatively low-cost fighter, built on a sustainable, future-oriented platform—much like what the F-35 was originally conceived as, prior to the chronic cost overruns and cyclical delays that turned it into what it is today. The FCAS, by contrast, is being developed as a complex and ambitious—as Osborne put it, “gold-plated”—project that more closely resembles Lockheed Martin’s premium F-22 Raptor.
First unveiled at the Farnborough Air Show, the Tempest fighter is a core part of London’s new Combat Air Strategy: a sweeping military modernization program aimed at creating an interoperable, next-generation network of air power platforms. The Tempest fighter is envisioned as an affordable and highly modular platform, able to be configured and reconfigured for a wide range of missions and combat scenarios. Among its more ambitious features is BAE’s unique wearable cockpit system, replacing analog and digital inputs with an augmented reality (AR) display technology and a slew of artificial intelligence-powered functions.
Despite the Tempest’s focus on cost-conscious development, there remains the looming threat of logistical and financial overextension. Britain is the only “level 1” partner in the F-35 program, as the Royal Air Force and Royal Navy aim to procure a hefty 138 short takeoff/vertical landing F-35Bs. It will be costly for Britain to maintain its commitments under the F-35 partner program while simultaneously developing and producing a homegrown sixth-generation fighter, with experts estimating the latter program to run at least $32.5 billion.
By contrast, the FCAS is a joint development program for a multipurpose fighter that—over the long term—will phase out both Dassault’s Rafale as well as the Eurofighter Typhoon. Although little is known about the FCAS fighter’s concrete capabilities, the plane is expected to adhere to the F-35’s information fusion design philosophy, interfacing with nearby satellites and other friendly aircraft to generate a dynamic picture of the battlefield. It will also be able to direct compatible drone models to execute a variety of reconnaissance, support, and offensive tasks.
In summary, there is little design overlap between these two European fighters and, as a result, scarcely any reason for the two projects to be merged. Nevertheless, there is a broader similarity worth highlighting: the two fighters are too expensive to completely replace their respective countries’ current fleets outright. As such, both projects are shaped around an export-driven development strategy. It remains to be seen exactly how the competition for customers between the Tempest and FCAS fighters plays out over the coming decades, but one thing is clear: given the fundamental design differences between these projects, there is no compelling reason why there can’t be two European sixth-generation fighters.
Mark Episkopos is the new national security reporter for the National Interest. Image: Reuters.