The Future air combat system of systems (SCAF) is aiming at a radical change in the pattern of use of air forces. The programme is being designed around the airmen and multiple, connected platforms. It is a demonstration of the strong will for cooperation between European partners who are determined to stay in the strategic race around the year 2040.
The Future Air Combat System (SCAF): A European Defence Policy That is Moving Forward
Contest for space, and especially airspace, is becoming more hard-fought as a result of anti-access and area denial (A2/AD) strategies. A2/AD strategies are now keeping our forces at bay through a combination of firm defence action, attacks and harassment at hitherto unknown levels: such strategies are now established in the new battlefields of space and cyber space.
In attacking outer space, the enemy seeks to deprive us of our long-distance communications, our navigation and synchronisation systems, and of our strategic means of gathering intelligence.
With cyber attacks he targets our means of coordination and command, and even our highly computerised and increasingly interconnected weapon systems themselves. Whilst this interconnection leads to substantial growth in sharing of information, it adds growing complexity in establishing precise and up to date data on the origin of the threat. This state of affairs could in time deprive us of our freedom of military action. Indeed, as General Philippe Lavigne, Chief of the Air Staff, reminded everyone during a parliamentary hearing on 17 October 2018, freedom of action in the air is a prerequisite for our protection and to any freedom of military action in the air, on the ground and at sea.(1)
The primary challenge for future combat aviation is therefore to preserve its capability to achieve and retain air superiority independently or in coalition in order to be able to act in the third dimension from bases on land and also from sea, from new generation aircraft carriers. This is why navalisation of future platforms needs to be taken into account from the outset of the design.
FCAS, a system of systems based on a new combat aircraft
To rise to these challenges from 2040, the construction of the Future combat air system (FCAS, Système de combat aérien du futur—SCAF) firstly needs to recognise a changed pattern of affairs. The current notion of the duel, which relies on superiority of different elements considered separately—a confrontation of two aircraft or of an aircraft and a missile—will be replaced by a capability to deploy groups of mixed platforms within much greater overall units, all closely interconnected and able to conduct a coordinated manoeuvre whilst and maintaining their effort in the long term. The FCAS concept comes down to an open system that combines different assets working in collaboration, whose type and number may change with time. For example, a FCAS will be able to bring together future combat aircraft or legacy aircraft (Rafale for France, Eurofighter for other nations), unmanned platforms (Remote carriers, MALE(2) drones and satellites), and tanker, communications relay, C2 or transport (A330 MRTT or A400M) aircraft.
In France the FCAS is represented as a system organised in two concentric circles. The first brings together the platforms that will be in direct contact with enemy threats: it will contain but not be limited to new generation combat aircraft with their own armament, cruise missiles operated from various types of platform (aircraft and ships), unmanned remote carriers each with a degree of autonomy, armed MALE drones and maritime patrol aircraft.
The second circle supports or is supported by the action in the first, according to the needs of the mission. This much larger circle includes air assets (advance warning aircraft, tankers, EW platforms, transports and helicopters), maritime assets (including new generation aircraft carriers, anti-air frigates and multi-mission frigates), land-based assets (ground-air defence systems, close air support or TACP and Special Forces, for example), space assets (communication and intelligence satellites) and the various command and control centres (C2 and JFAC(3)). These assets and their different degrees of interconnection form a system of systems, which must continue to evolve with changing needs and as missions unfold.
With this background, establishment of the FCAS requires new weapon systems to be developed that are resilient to the types of threat envisaged, whilst at the same time allowing for incremental adaptation of the current air combat system. That is why SCAF will be designed around a multi-role combat aircraft adapted to the air threats to come, which exploits the potential of artificial intelligence (AI) and networked combat assets such as cruise missiles and other weapons and drones of various types, as the Minister for the armed forces, Florence Parly, indicated in 2018.(4)
Looking ahead to 2040, at the centre of the first circle of the FCAS the new combat aircraft, the New Generation Fighter (NGF), will have advanced capacity for survivability and manoeuvrability that will call upon ground breaking technologies. It will have on-board AI capability to assist the aircrew in their understanding of the situation, conduct of the mission and decisions to be taken. The NGF will be accompanied by unmanned vehicles that will have a degree of autonomy. These remote carriers will be both effectors and captors and will bring new capabilities for saturation, neutralisation of enemy defences and intelligence.
Apart from the platforms that will constitute the FCAS, its system of systems design will rely on a level of data exchange never before achieved. That will require networking of all players involved as well as judiciously dispersed data handling capabilities. The use of AI to handle this mass of data and in particular to detect weak signals will be essential. The control and security of data handling and exchange is fundamental and poses a significant challenge for sovereignty, yet that must not inhibit the search for a very high level of interoperability.
To ensure the superiority of our weapon systems, ground breaking technologies have to be developed: this is not a question of simply developing existing or emergent technologies but of going out and searching for ones that have yet to appear. Capturing innovation is therefore one of the structuring principles of the FCAS project. Initial steps in this direction have already been taken: they will be developed further in particular via the Defence innovation agency (Agence de l’innovation de Défense—AID) in liaison with the major industrial groups.
What the FCAS brings to current combat aviation
The major evolution that the FCAS brings when compared with current combat aviation is its ab initio concept of a system of systems. Connecting all players together will bring the informational superiority that is essential for keeping ahead of our adversaries: it is a question of knowing more quickly in order to decide more quickly and affording optimised use of the different vectors available to act effectively whilst controlling collateral damage. This is connected collaborative air combat.
In order to achieve this goal and to assist the human in the decisional loop as much as possible, we will nevertheless need to advance in technological maturity and intensify our research. Work to this end has begun with the Man Machine Teaming (MMT) project, put out to contract at the beginning of 2018 by the Procurement organisation (Direction générale de l’armement—DGA). Improving man and machine interfaces and drawing on AI-related technologies, the project aims to redesign the cockpit of future aviation, making it a cognitive air system.
To do this we need to answer the fundamental question of assessing the level of autonomy we afford weapon systems and the operational effects we expect of them. The key issue is to keep man at the centre of engagement decisions, which is a measure of respect for the ethics of the combatant and the laws of armed conflict. With regard to these needs, the role of MMT is to identify the group of technologies that might be integrated into this cognitive air system and to develop some of them further. For this, the project is calling on a French ecosystem of start-ups; SMEs and research bodies. The move is structured around six themes: the virtual assistant and the smart cockpit, man-machine interactions, mission management, intelligent sensors, captor services and support. Initial results are expected from the end of 2019.
The new vectors will be adapted to the threat foreseen for 2040 by increased survivability and effectiveness brought about by their physical structures—shapes and materials—and addition of active measures such as electronic warfare. They will be designed from the outset with expansion capacity so that they can always be kept a step ahead of the enemy forces’ capabilities. Man-machine cooperation and the massive exploitation of data using AI will allow more rapid, appropriate decision-making and offer new concepts of use such as coordinated flights of unmanned vectors.
Challenges for defence
With the FCAS, the challenge for the French Air Force and the Navy is therefore above all to be able to guarantee national independence, especially for their mission of the airborne element of the deterrent, and to face up to the threats envisaged around 2040. In this way, the freedom of action of political decision makers in time of crisis will be preserved.
The choice of the new vectors must align with our ambitions and our means. Future equipment must be able to confront the most contested of environments and also to conduct low-intensity operations at acceptable acquisition and operating costs. Training and support of these new platforms are fully taken into account in the concept studies.
The ambition of the FCAS makes it a precursor project for the entire Ministry of the armed forces. For example, it interacts with the major project for the successor to the aircraft carrier Charles-de-Gaulle that was started by the Minister for the armed forces in October 2018. It is also the first project conducted from its initialisation phase by a dedicated and integrated team that brings together operational personnel and those of the DGA. The team is working in close coordination with key French industries operating in the field of combat aviation in France. In this way, the project is an example of the capability approach sought by the Minister for the armed forces.
At the centre of the FCAS, the NGWS—a European cooperation project
On 13 July 2017, the French President and the German Chancellor decided to set in motion common consideration for the renewal in 2040 of the Rafale and Eurofighter fleets by the ‘Next Generation Weapon System (NGWS) within a Future Combat Air System’. Under French leadership, the NGWS project will focus on the NGF, the accompanying unmanned platforms (uniting the various remote carriers) and the connectivity that links them.
The interests of each nation, industrial in particular, are taken into account. This will be based on appropriate organisation of the partner states, both for the platform aspects and all of the equipment aspects, including EW, sensors and security, that are essential to the performance of the NGWS. Sharing of responsibilities between industries and states will be clearly established, particularly regarding aspects of certification, airworthiness, security and end-to-end performance measurement. The organisation must be open to addition of new partners.
NGWS is a truly European project aimed at pursuing the development of European defence, strengthening its sovereignty and ensuring the future of its defence industry. It is therefore open to any European country that wishes to join—as Spain has recently done. To this effect, a common operational vision (HL CORD(5)) has been agreed by the Chiefs of Defence Staffs of the three countries and confirmed in a letter of intent signed by their Ministers on 14 February 2019 in Brussels.
Establishing contracts with the various industries will be the responsibility of the DGA on behalf of all the partners. For running those contracts, a multi-national Combined Project Team (CPT) will be set up in France from October 2019. It will bring together in the Paris region some thirty personnel from the participating countries, drawn from the world of armament projects (DGA and its foreign equivalents) and from the operational environment.
The starting point, the Joint Concept Study
As announced by the French and German Ministers at the beginning of February, cooperation began with the award on 31 January 2019 to Dassault and Airbus of a first contract for architecture and concept studies for the NGWS. This common study, which began on 20 February 2019, aims at defining the operational need and refining the characteristics of the new weapon systems that will be developed together. The study is organised around combined state/industry ‘round tables’ and is planned to last 2 years: its end state is to propose consolidated ideas to the highest political levels in the participating countries so that they can decide finally on the concept to be developed.
These studies are looking as a priority at defining operational scenarios that shape the nature of conflicts and threats around 2040. They will serve as filters through which the different concepts will be passed. The ability to fulfil the assigned missions will be evaluated against a list of strategic functions identified as structural. In parallel, balanced evaluation criteria will be established to classify the concepts as a function of the quality of their response to different scenarios. These criteria will cover varied domains—operational, programming, technological, sustainability and cost, among others. Finally, the different platforms and their interconnection that come out of previous national studies will be incorporated into this initial operational evaluation.
In parallel with these conceptual studies, detailed technological route maps will be created in order to steer the project and prioritise where effort is to be made to meet the 2040 timescale.
R&T: key to success of the project
The FCAS will call upon numerous new and ground breaking technologies. Before being able to decide on their integration into platforms they need to achieve sufficient maturity to establish their performance, risks and costs.
For this, research and Technology (R&T) work is essential for the preparation of trials in the laboratory, on the ground and in flight. In parallel with this traditional scheme of system design, demonstrations that put the overall set of systems to work will combine simulation with real equipment in live trials and potentially in operational condition. In this way it is envisaged that demonstrators will be developed for NGF (first flight planned for 2026) and remote carriers, as well as iterative demonstrations of the system of systems. They will be complemented by other demonstrations of motors, sensors and stealth. All of these trials will be in a coherent digital environment that will allow establishment of the best compromise of overall performance achievable, and will benefit from the short cycle and opportunities offered by that environment.
Nevertheless, to be ready for 2040 analysis of projects of similar size, such as Rafale and Neuron, has shown that R&T work has to be started now. Informed discussion has started between states and industry with the aim of launching as soon as possible a first R&T study phase common to all concepts. It will be followed by other sequences of studies that will take their steer from the initial conclusions.
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The return of military powers or the appearance of new ones, the evolution of threats carried along on a wave of staggering technological development, and A2/AD strategies are all going to challenge our capability for action if we do not react, and threaten the security of the French population and our interests of power. To remain in the strategic race we have to react now—and that means investing positively for the future.
This rapidly changing environment points to a change in pattern for our air power: operational superiority can no longer come simply from elements considered independently but from the ability to use them collectively and more effectively than the adversary. That means more quickly and more accurately and with effort sustained over the longer term.
Since our principal partners are faced with the same issues, the challenge must uphold our ambition for greater affirmation of European strategic independence. Beyond the political objectives, sharing of development costs of a modern air combat system, and the need for interoperability are invitations to look for and seize opportunities for partnership. Such cooperation under French leadership has been established between France and Germany, and extended to Spain through the ambitious project for the Next Generation Weapon System within a Future Combat Air System based on a genuine system of systems at the centre of which is a new generation combat aircraft and partially autonomous effector drones. ♦
(1) National defence and armed forces committee, on the hearing of General Philippe Lavigne, CEMAA, on draft finance law for 2019, 17 October 2018, Assemblée Nationale (www.assemblee-nationale.fr/).
(2) Medium Altitude, Long Endurance.
(3) Joint Force Air Command.
(4) Florence Parly, Communiqué following the Franco-German council of ministers ‘European defence advances’, 19 June 2018 (www.france-allemagne.fr/).
(5) High Level Common Operational Requirement Document.