French aerospace giant Dassault Aviation SA is giving stiff competition to the United States Air Force’s Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) program by developing a state-of-the-art fighter, better known as Future Combat Air System (FCAS), which could very well replace the Rafales in the near future.
The sixth-generation fighter is the Paris-based aircraft manufacturer’s first solo design, since the Rafales were designed in collaboration with the European company Airbus, and is set to take its first flight in 2026.
The FCAS offers European nations the opportunity to skip the development of fifth-generation fighter jets like the stealthy pair of American F-35 Lightning and F-22 Raptors altogether, as they look to replace their fourth-generation warplanes such as the Panavia Tornado and Eurofighter Typhoons.
While European aircraft under the bracket of fourth-generation and 4++ generation like Saab’s Gripens, Dassault’s Rafales and the Typhoons are not far away in terms of technology used in the fifth-generation fighters, the absence of stealth along with the ability to cruise at supersonic speeds and fusing sensor data necessitates the next-generation European fighter.
For a long time, the French have remained independent in the design and development of warplanes within their national boundary. However, the need for a direct replacement for the Rafales and Eurofighters has prompted them to partner with Spain and Germany, with the FCAS likely becoming the most pan-European jet in history.
However, unlike these countries, the United Kingdom, whose Royal Air Force and Navy already have the American F-35As and F-35Bs in their fleet have chosen to develop their own sixth-generation fighter under the name of the Tempest Project.
“The FCAS and Tempest concepts share a lot in common as they both aspire to incorporate a checklist of features expected of the still purely notional sixth-generation fighter, which is intended to be a leap ahead of today’s F-22, F-35 and J-20 stealth fighters,” says Sebastien Roblin, a defense expert with The National Interest.
As suggested in last year’s mockup at the Paris Air Show, the upcoming fighter is reported to have an elevated bubble canopy which will provide excellent visibility to the pilot. A post on Twitter revealed that the pilot will have a big digital screen in front of him, enabling him to have a detailed view of things including the maps.
Owing to the enormous costs of developing different seat variants of fighter jets, the FCAS is likely to be a single-seat aircraft with reports suggesting that it will be powered by two engines along with F-35-style air intakes.
Aviation expert Kyle Mizokami wrote in an article for Science and Technology magazine, Popular Mechanics that the FCAS is intricately designed in order to make it highly stealthy.
“FCAS appears to have a blended body-wing formation that increases the interior volume of the aircraft and allowing more room for internally stored fuel and weapons. FCAS also looks like it has a single set of low-angle stabilizers replacing traditional, separate horizontal and vertical stabilizers, making the aircraft even more stealthy,” he wrote.
While it is too early to predict the entire set of modern features aboard the FCAS aircraft, some common features might include laser or microwave weapons, optional manning, very long-range air-to-air missiles, resilience against cyberattacks, and the ability to control drones flying alongside it.
To be precise, the next-generation fighter can be described as a family of systems with the fighter component being designed by Dassault and the responsibility of the fighter’s cloud computing and remote carriers falling in the hands of Airbus.
Airbus had earlier signed an agreement with European missiles manufacturer MBDA to collaborate on the development of demonstrators for Remote Carriers, which is a part of the FCAS program.
“The teaming involves Airbus addressing the whole scope of the Remote Carriers program and in particular teaming intelligence, and focusing on medium to large platforms. MBDA will be focusing on the development of small and medium-class Remote Carriers platforms together and under the lead of Airbus,” according to Def Post.
The FCAS pilot will have the ability to control a number of remote carriers with a concept similar to that of the US Loyal Wingman.
“A pilot could control several remote carriers in battle: some designed to imitate full-sized fighters, others to jam enemy electronics, and still others to attack enemy air defense radars and missile launchers. FCAS’ remote carrier concept is similar to the US Air Force’s loyal wingman concept,” said Mizokami.
Most importantly, the FCAS will be an even lethal and upgraded version of the French Rafales because of its ability to carry out nuclear weapons just like the 4.5 generation fighters.
While the French version of the fighter will carry the ASMP nuclear missile or its replacement, Germany and other NATO nations will need certification in order to carry the new American B-61-12 nuclear bomb.
According to Tony Osbourne, London Bureau Chief for Aviation Week & Space Technology, the heavily loaded fighter will also be physically bigger than the Rafales. “(The FCAS mockup looks) 1/3rd or 1/4 bigger than a Rafale,” said Osbourne.