Aircraft makers lumber toward deal for Europe’s next-gen fighter jet

BENOIT TESSIER

STUTTGART, Germany — France’s Dassault Aviation on Thursday said there is a breakthrough industry agreement that would finally allow the trinational Future Combat Air System effort to proceed.

In a Dec. 1 interview with French publication Le Figaro, Dassault CEO and Chairman Eric Trappier revealed that “all road blocks have been lifted” for the partners to move forward on Phase 1B, the pre-demonstrator phase that would work on developing a fighter prototype. Le Figaro is owned by Dassault Group, the parent company of Dassault Aviation.

The envisioned Franco-German-Spanish aerial weapon has been on hold for over one year now, as two of its prime contractors, Dassault and Airbus Defence and Space, have failed to find a way to work harmoniously on the program’s signature effort, the next-generation fighter.

Trappier has been vocal about the fact that the program’s stalling stems from a disagreement about the industry leadership role for the fighter jet pillar. He told Le Figaro that Dassault has been confirmed in its leadership and architect role for the aircraft, and has been reassured that its intellectual property would be safeguarded in the program.

He asserted in the interview that the prototype fighter would be ready to fly by 2029, two years later than originally planned. A Phase 2 contract, which would launch the prototype development period, is expected to be signed in the next two to three years, he added.

Airbus confirmed the industry agreement had been signed in a Thursday email to Defense News.

“All industry partners of the Future Combat Air System have now signed the respective agreements in order to launch the program’s next phase, the demonstrator phase 1B,” said Airbus CEO Mike Schoellhorn. The trinational program includes Dassault representing France, Airbus Defence and Space representing Germany and Indra representing Spain.

Yet the update remains just one more step before the final contract signature between the three participating nations and their industry partners, which will occur “once relevant processes have been concluded in the respective customer nations,” Schoellhorn added.

“We are optimistic that this can be accomplished in the very near future,” he said.

A Dassault spokesperson declined to comment further in an email to Defense News on Thursday, referring to Trappier’s interview with Le Figaro.

The announcement follows over two weeks of rising and falling hopes that companies could agree on terms. German and Spanish government and industry officials loudly proclaimed in late November that a deal was close to being completed, only for Trappier to pour cold water on the potential development in his own interviews with the press.

The FCAS program, announced in 2017, consists of seven technology pillars, to include the next-generation fighter – which will replace the participants’ fleets of Dassault Rafale and Eurofighter Typhoon aircraft – a new engine for the fighter jet, a next-generation weapon system, new drones, advanced sensors and stealth technology, and an air combat cloud network. It has been stuck in the research-oriented “Phase 1A” since 2020, and was due to progress to the next level by early 2021.

French Defense Minister Sebastien Lecornu applauded the news on Thursday, calling the project “a concrete illustration of the cooperation we are conducting on the European level on defense and armaments, in which France is playing a central role.”

The contracts will be formally brought before France’s military procurement office, the Direction Générale de l’Armement (DGA), which is managing the trinational program. According to a Thursday statement by the French Ministry of Defense, the goal remains to field the system of systems, including the next-generation fighter, around 2040.