More details emerge regarding the electronic warfare capabilities potentially adorning the pan-European FCAS sixth generation fighter.
During the 2018 ILA Berlin Air Show, Dassault Aviation and Airbus announced they would collaborate on FCAS (Future Combat Air System) development, with Spain joining the programme in 2019. Several companies are involved in the initiative beyond Airbus and Dassault including Indra, Safran, MBDA, MTU and Thales. Development of the FCAS’ Electronic Warfare (EW) systems is expected to unfold via the European Union’s (EU) Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) undertaking.
Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) forms a cornerstone of the EU’s Common Defence and Security Policy (CSDP). CSDP encompasses those programmes under the European Defence Agency (EDA) auspices. The EDA is the EU organisation tasked with improving Europe’s defence capabilities. PESCO projects deepen cooperation and resource-sharing on military equipment research and development; acquisition and employment.
Development of the FCAS’ electronic warfare systems could be driven by the EW Capability and Interoperability Programme for Future Joint Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (JISR) PESCO group. JISR includes several subgroups notably one dedicated to Airborne Electronic Attack (AEA). Spain is the group’s coordinating nation with France and Sweden also participating.
According to the AEA’s webpage, its efforts focus on the development of a multi-jamming capability for stand-off, stand-in and escort jamming “that will be based (on) state-of-the-art existing technological cores … including in particular Cyber Electro Magnetic Activities.” This work could form the basis of the FCAS’ EW systems.
Clues are emerging regarding the FCAS EW capabilities. A written statement from Hensoldt, one of the companies involved, emphasises that “the FCAS EW systems will go far beyond self-protection.”
One can expect that the aircraft’s electronic warfare systems will be coupled with its other sensors like its radar and optronics. This could give the pilot a choice of using either kinetic or electronic effects to engage hostile targets. It is possible that the EW systems could be used to deliver cyber effects into hostile computers and networks. Hensoldt says that this approach is key to the “system of systems” philosophy behind the EW architecture and its attributes.
It seems inevitable that the aircraft’s own EW systems will be networked into a wider constellation of electromagnetic sensors and effectors for the delivery of electronic and cyber effects not only against direct threats but in support of the operation’s wider intent. This is an important step to moving combat aircraft EW systems beyond their ostensibly tactical role to also support the operational level battle.
Given that the FCAS is not expected to take to the skies until the mid-point of next decade at the earliest Hensoldt says that there are some EW technologies which may yet need to be invented to counter “the threats of the future.” For example, the aircraft’s EW capabilities “will be characterised by fully-fledged cognitive EW capabilities.” Thus, the electronic warfare systems will enjoy unprecedented levels of autonomy to recognise threats and counter these using machine learning algorithms. This helps reduce pilot workload while quickening the aircraft’s reaction times. Modular and scalable approaches will also be a sine qua non: “Military aircraft have a lifespan of more than 30 years. Without a modular, upgradable (EW) system we will not be capable of properly responding to upcoming, future threats.”
Where do we go from here? Much work remains to be done but the programme is moving forward. Development of the aircraft’s technologies will continue until circa 2026/2027, Hensoldt’s statement notes. A prototype could fly in 2027 with the maiden flight of a production aircraft occurring in 2034. An initial operational capability is mooted for 2040. Exciting times. It is inevitable that the EW systems equipping this aircraft will be a quantum leap forward compared to those in service today.