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The Future Combat Air System (FCAS): Towards the Next-Generation Fighter Aircraft

20 April 2021

A new agreement has been reached between the Future Combat Air System (FCAS) companies regarding developing a new European jet fighter. This project constitutes a major advancement in the consecution of European strategic autonomy, as it consolidates the European defence industry sector and reinforces its military capabilities.

The FCAS has been referred to as a ‘system of systems’. Besides the jet fighter project, other air combat-related initiatives such as drones, sensors, and remote carriers are being developed to build a true aerial defence interconnected network (AIRBUS, 2020). However, the Next Generation Fighter (NGF) constitutes the core of this enterprise, the so-called Next-Generation Weapon System (NGWS), which by 2040 aims to substitute the current German Eurofighter and the French Rafale jet fighters.

The countries that are part of the FCAS are Germany, France, and Spain, the latter joining in 2019. Each country has appointed a company that acts as an industrial coordinator, being Airbus for Germany, Indra Systems for Spain, and Dassault for France. One of the main features of the FCAS is the cooperation and collaboration between the participating countries, as their contributions are equally essential for the success of the project. Hopefully, this will encourage other European states to join the platform and promote the establishment of a more coordinated defence industry.

The origins of this defence platform can be traced back to 2001, when the first proposals for developing a new combat aircraft by European countries arose (Vogel, 2021, 1). Nonetheless, the turning point for the FCAS happened in 2017, when the French and German governments agreed to launch this initiative following their post-Brexit leading role in the EU’s security and defence affairs, one of the EU’s most stagnant areas. It is necessary to acknowledge how the EU’s foreign affairs and security and defence matters have always been the areas where progress and advancement have proved to be challenging. Despite all integration achievements accomplished in other EU fields, the cultural, historical, and geographical differences between the Member States prevented the consolidation of a common strategic culture. This circumstance has affected the involvement of the Union in the main international events of recent years, evidencing a limited reaction capacity and a lack of coherence of its foreign policy and external action. This has prevented the Union from playing its intended role in the current global order, even though it is one of the most influential normative, diplomatic, and economic actors.

Given this conjuncture, Member States and European institutions realised that to become a more influential international actor, it is necessary to achieve a higher degree of strategic autonomy. Also, a strategically autonomous EU should be responsible for its territorial defence and capable of deploying its missions and operations, counting on the necessary structures and capacities, and without requiring the support of other international organisations or actors. In addition, this would be supported by a solid and efficient European defence industry which would cover the defensive and military needs of the EU. This is where the FCAS gains relevance, as it was born to increase Europe’s independence and autonomy by developing its security and defence areas.

The 2017 Franco-German initiative led to the beginning of the Next Generation Fighter’s development in 2020. The FCAS was granted the contract for the first phase of the project, with a volume of 155m € and a duration of 18 months (FCAS, 2020). Following this, major steps have been taken, allowing the project to move forward. After long negotiations, Dassault and Airbus have reached an agreement for moving on to the next phase of the project’s development. The dissensions mainly stem from intellectual property rights and task-share division negotiations following Spain’s adhesion to the project (Machi, DefenseNews, 2021). This means the development of the NGF will continue progressing within the agreed timeframe, hence moving headway from the current 1A phase to the 1B phase, both under the first pillar, which is the demonstrator. However, conversations about the second pillar are starting to emerge, as it will be the part of the project which will focus on the engine of the aircraft, and each company involved is rooting for its model. All in all, the first flight tests are expected by 2026.

In any case, even though the latest negotiations were successful, it cannot be denied that these kinds of obstacles will continue arising throughout the development and evolution of the project, given the different approaches between Paris and Berlin  (Bronk, 2021, 1). For France, the FCAS represents the next step in defensive and offensive national capabilities while also playing a major role in the country’s nuclear deterrence mission, whereas for Germany, the project stands exclusively for defensive purposes (Bronk, 2021, 2). In the long term, their different necessities could lead to disagreements over the FCAS’ features and capabilities (Bronk, 2021, 2).

Another source of misunderstanding can be the aforementioned task division. With the NGF as the core project of the programme, the companies involved want to secure their position by partaking as much as possible in aircraft development. This has been one of the main causes for the latest tensions. Given the presence of Airbus in Spain and Germany, Dassault argued that Airbus’ role was becoming too prevailing;. At the same time, Airbus stated that Dassault’s was teaming up with other major French companies, such as Thales and MBDA (Sprenger, DefenseNews, 2021).

Finally, in the future, the FCAS and the British-Italian BAE Systems Tempest programme will likely need to join forces to survive as it is not clear if Europe can afford to sustain two different air combat systems (Forte,, 2021). However, this will depend on the success of each project and the degree of actual existing duplication between them (Bronk, 2021, 4).

Considering all of the above, the FCAS poses the most ambitious European defence project to date with an estimated cost of 50.000 – 80.000 million Euro. The aim of the programme transcends the military dimension as its technological applications reach a vast number of sectors and fields. Additionally, another important contribution of the FCAS is promoting a common European strategic culture, a necessary element for the future of the EU in an increasingly unstable and volatile international juncture. The FCAS also seeks to establish a new concept of air combat systems. While facing traditional air force challenges, it will also have a special focus on cyberattacks and cybersecurity. However, to achieve this, the main obstacle that needs to be overcome is to leave national concerns aside and focus on the big picture, which is not always a simple task but will prove to be beneficial for the EU.

Written by Carlos Bravo NAVARRO, Legal Researcher at Finabel – European Army Interoperability Centre


AIRBUS website. (2020). ‘The Mission of the FCAS’[online]. Available at:

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FCAS website. (2020). ‘Future Combat Air System (FCAS) Shaping the future of air power [online]. Available at:

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Machi, V. ‘French Senate confirms new industry pact for FCAS fighter jet program’, DefenseNews, 6 April 2021, [online]. Available at:

Sprenger, S. ‘Airbus tells French lawmakers there’s no ‘Plan B’ for FCAS’, DefenseNews, 17 March 2021, [online]. Available at:

Vogel, D. (2021). ‘Future Combat Air System: Too Big to Fail. Differing Perceptions and High Complexity Jeopardise Success of Strategic Armament Project’, SWP Comment, 1-8, [online]. Available at: