The sixth-generation FCAS fighter aircraft will complete and eventually replace the current Rafale and Eurofighters from 2040 onwards. Handout, Illustration.

There’s a tale of two fighters underway in Europe. And countries — and their companies — are choosing sides, Defense News reports.

The latest news came during the DSEI Expo in London — on Sept. 10, the Italian and UK governments signed a pledge to cooperate on the Tempest next-generation combat aircraft.

A day later, BAE Systems and Leonardo formalized a partnership for development. With Leonardo comes Avio Aero and Elettronica, adding to the team of MBDA and Rolls-Royce already on board. Likewise, Italy joins Sweden — the first country to sign onto the Tempest team with the UK back in July.

In the other corner is Germany, Spain and France — united in development of yet another next-generation fighter for Europe, the Future Combat Air System, or FCAS (or SCAF, Systeme de Combat Aérien Futur, in French).  That trio (thus far) brings the industrial expertise of Airbus and Dassault.

Of course, nobody has said officially that this is an either-or scenario; maybe Europe, decades from now, will end up with two systems of systems as they’re each being presented.

But when you consider the expense, as well as the messaging coming out of NATO and the European Union about regional security, it would seem unlikely and counterproductive, the report said.

While dancing around the topic somewhat, chief executive of the European Defence Agency, Jorge Domecq, did predict some level of convergence: “As always, thinking of the competitiveness of the European defense industry, we have to think of program sustainability.”

So then who might win? To the victor goes major spoils, including lucrative offsets that bring thousands of jobs — jobs Europe needs.

As one would figure, that depends on whom you ask.

A lot of the conversation at DSEI — building upon the enthusiasm at the Farnborough Airshow in 2018 when the new fighter was first unveiled — seemed to favor team Tempest.

Some pointed to the fundamental disagreement between Germany and France about the exportability of its envisioned components. (Berlin takes a more restrictive stance than Paris when it comes to potential buyers in the Middle East.) Others claimed that France would be less likely to share control, which in turn might make additional partners reluctant to sign on.

But consider arguments from the other side, many of which emerged at the Paris Air Show in June, where a model of the Franco-German next-generation fighter was unveiled at Dassault’s chalet.

The UK will soon not be a part of the EU, for one thing. That leaves some uncertainty on how regional cooperation might work, but also over whether the UK can pursue such an ambitious program amid political uncertainty. Some point to Italy, too, which has also struggled for political stability. And both countries face budget problems.

In any case, let’s have a quick look at the two sixth-generation opponents:

According to The Drive, Tempest will have two engines hidden away deep inside the airframe to help keep its radar and infrared signatures as low as possible. Rolls-Royce says they are working on an engine design that will leverage composite materials and advanced manufacturing processes to be lightweight, have better thermal management, and still keep costs low.

It will have a wide array of sensors, including advanced radars and multi-spectral cameras, as well as unspecified data links and communications equipment. As with other advanced fighter jet designs, such as the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, the goal is to provide the pilot with as complete a picture of the battlespace as possible, allow the jet to share that information with other friendlies, and let the pilot pull additional data from other assets in the air, on the ground, and even potentially in space.

Tempest will have two engines hidden away deep inside the airframe to help keep its radar and infrared signatures as low as possible. Handout, Illustration.

The jet will have a modular payload bay, which could accommodate weapons — including offensive and defensive direct energy weapons — additional sensors, electronic warfare suites or other systems to allow it to perform multiple roles.

This could allow different aircraft in a single flight to carry only one type of system, with sensor-packing planes locating targets and feeding that information via their data links to others in the formation loaded with a maximum amount of weaponry.

In the opposing corner, the FCAS — or what Airbus describes, as “more than a combat aircraft.”

Says Airbus: “FCAS is a system of systems consolidating a large array of interconnected and interoperable elements: a new generation fighter aircraft, unmanned MALE drones (medium-altitude, long endurance), the current aircraft fleet (which will still be in service after 2040), cruise missiles and drone swarms.

“The entire system will be connected and operable with a vast perimeter of mission aircrafts, satellites, NATO systems as well as land and naval combat systems. The new generation fighter aircraft will complete and eventually replace the current Rafale and Eurofighters from 2040 onwards.”

Maj.-Gen. Jean-Pascal Breton, program lead FCAS, asked by Jane’s Defence about the choice of a manned platform, said: “Our first priorities for the future fighter are air superiority and deterrence, and these are the drivers for a manned aircraft at the core of the FCAS system-of-systems.

“On the question of a manned or an unmanned aircraft, we have determined that due to our missions we need something that is very close to a conventional combat aircraft. Even if you think artificial intelligence [AI] is performing or not, we trust that in the future there will still be manned aircraft and so this will be the core of the system-of-systems — it will be survivable, supersonic and maneuverable.”

All countries involved in either program will expect a healthy portion of the work to land in their backyards. Perhaps it would borrow from the model of the F-35, where the US funded the bulk of development and partner nations contributed a portion in exchange for subcontracts.

Or maybe this whole exercise — pursuing two systems, lining up manufacturers, recruiting partner nations — should be viewed as something of a downselect process to identify what practically makes the most sense as a region.

Regardless, competition is always good … just ask the Americans, who will ultimately spend US$1.5 trillion on the development life of the F-35, the most expensive military project in history, and one everyone wants to avoid.

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