Can you explain the Airbus FCAS philosophy?
For us, the FCAS idea is much more than a single platform — it is a combination of various assets working together as a global system. Each and every part of Airbus’s business is involved, from UAV & military and combat aircraft to space, connectivity, cyber and security. All these elements have a special role in a common system. It’s the first time we’ve had a programme which brings together the whole spectrum of what Airbus Defence & Space can do. This is also the reason why we decided to build an organisation that’sable to drive such a programme across Germany France, Spain and the UK and all programme lines.The level of ambition is high and we want to address it.
In particular, we are looking at what the future threats will be, and what technologies we will need to tackle them.
What’s your view on what the main future threat scenario is, and how will this impact on FCAS planning?
From 2040 onwards we will face a massively increased threat level for air assets and these will require new technologies to address them. Even today we see the proliferation of threat systems with the advent of near and potential peer opponents. It’s therefore vital to have a roadmap for capabilities and the technologies that leverage these.
At the same time, the way we manage information, the way it’s analysed, processed, transformed into intelligence, transmitted and used will be on a whole new level, especially in the combat sphere. This will be supported by new technologies around artificial intelligence, communications and big data management. We’re looking at a future with an information-centric system with connected platforms. Information will become a combat resource.
This approach will have a huge impact on all the platforms, both existing ones like Eurofighter and new ones that are still to be developed, indeed for everyone operating in the future combat space.
We see the necessity for the next generation combat system to be a combination of assets, or System of Systems, where manned and unmanned assets, combat and collaborative platforms, will need to operate jointly. The distinction between shooter and sensor platforms will blur. Even between kinetic and non-kinetic assets. The right effect at the right time matters. By working collaboratively, they will quantify their mission effectiveness, retaining a high flexibility.
Besides developing a new fighter or new unmanned air systems like the EURO Male, it’s important to make existing ones smarter with a disruptive approach. For example, a future smart Multi-Role Transport Tanker (MRTT) – a persistent platform close to the battlespace — could contribute not only by giving fuel, but also be a contributor in the intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance-processing, exploitation, and dissemination (ISR-PED)cycleby filtering information through AI analytics and pushing relevant intelligence back into the forward battlespace.
And all these will be connected through a joint IT and Communication network, distributing and managing the information between the platforms. In the end it's not a new fighter which will replace an existing fighter — it will be a whole new connected system.
What do you think will be the key areas that will drive technology change?
We believe there are four key elements that will be the building blocks of development of new technology.
The first one is the existing fleet of combat aircraft, the Eurofighter and others, which will need to be upgraded to new levels to face new threats.
The second is a new fighter, which will have new technologies, with things like a new approach to propulsion, stealth, new sensor and communications capability and new cockpit design that will allow the management of complex tasks in a distributed C2 environment.
The third element is around unmanned systems, where we'll have to invest in technology linked to automation, mission systems, swarming and connectivity.
The final driver of new technologies is around IT and communication technologies, the way we manage networks and the way we handle very large amounts of data. We will look at technology like artificial intelligence that will support decision-making in the system to ensure pilots don’t drown in data whilst at the same time increasing their situational awareness.
What will be the key capability requirements for success in the air domain in the years and decades ahead?
Developing a so-called ‘Combat Cloud Eco-system’ where a range of networked fighters and other assets are all communicating and sharing information is a fundamental shift. We aren’t simply talking interoperability, where you define some protocols and standards to exchange information, but rather a future of full integration. Here all the systems will be integrated and the level of exchange of data will be much higher.
The crucial point is this: the way you handle information will be the main differentiator between winning or losing in a battlespace.
When you look at the old mantra of requirements for fighter aircraft in the previous decades speed and agility were always top of the list. For the next generation the call will be information management because this is what will give you superiority in front of your enemy. It doesn’t mean a future fighter won’t need to have agility and air-to-air capabilities too, but what will make it a winner is the way it manages information.
Airbus has already started working on manned and unnamed teaming — can we assume that this will become increasingly important in the FCAS era?
Without a doubt. In the future we will see manned and unmanned teaming as standard. That’s linking the platforms which are currently being developed, like Euro-MALE. They will provide information and support the tactical combat parts of FCAS.
However, we suggest there will be another type of manned and unmanned teaming. This is for very specific scenarios, in denied environment combat missions for example. Here you’ll see a combination of smaller unmanned assets working with a fighter aircraft. At Airbus we call them a ‘remote carrier’, because the unmanned assets will carry some of the fighter’s capabilities remotely.
The remote carrier concept is the logical conclusion when you think about the level of threat constantly or exponentially increasing over time. Given that reality you would not be able to develop an aircraft to fully answer these very high-end threat scenarios because it would drive the complexity of the aircraft to levels which are non-fundable and are not realistic.
The only way to respond is by combining assets. The sophisticated fighter aircraft combined with external unmanned systems that can perform a wide range of missions — be it kinetic or non-kinetic, from tactical to strategic level missions.
Combining assets will give flexibility to the system and will also have the very simple effect of saturating enemy defences through force mass, while limiting the risk for operators and with reasonable economic efforts.
The other advantage of this approach is that the development and upgrade cycles for a fighter aircraft are relatively long, whereas the threats will constantly evolve. The cycles that we expect for a remote carrier are much shorter. You can evolve the capabilities of the whole system by developing new remote carriers, in turn they will extend the capabilities of the aircraft. It makes the system both upgradable and scalable. In the process it protects the pilot and multiplies the impact of the attack and also, by downloading some capabilities from the fighter to the remote carrier, it increases mission efficiency.
How much progress have you made with manned and unmanned teaming work to date?
We have a successful track record for working on technologies linked to automation, swarming algorithms, and common mission systems. In fact, in October we demonstrated an example of what teaming manned and unmanned systems could look like. We used off-the-shelf target drones, and the core of the demonstration was around the intelligence in the swarming algorithm and in the level of automation.
The live demonstration featured five drones commanded by an aircraft. The aircraft gave the drones a series of high-level commands like ‘identify the threats’ and they automatically adapted their mission plan to perform the different tasks. They even split tasks between them to perform them in the most efficient manner. It's a first step but it's the result of just one year’s work so just imagine what could be achieved in the coming 10 or 15 years once we have put serious development into it.
How do you see Eurofighter’s role in the future — could it be a good bridge for technology transfer?
People have described Eurofighter as a bridge into FCAS but I’d go further, Eurofighter will also be at the core of the FCAS system – whatever it turns out to be. You only have to look at the timeline, Eurofighter will fly alongside the new fighter and within the FCAS system for more than 20 years.
And until a new fighter is developed, Eurofighter will be the platform where we will test and operationally implement some of the technologies which will be required for an FCAS. Here we’re looking at connectivity, networked weapons and the remote carrier, manned/unmanned teaming. Just imagine in the timeframe before an FCAS we could have the Eurofighter flying with an unmanned system and that could dramatically increase the capability of the aircraft in theatre. It's a fantastic opportunity for Eurofighter because you can invest into increased capabilities, and that would enable it to operate in the networked environment of the future.
What advances do you see existing platforms having to make to remain relevant in a future battlespace?
If we had the Eurofighter or the FCAS flying in the future battlespace environment, they will need massive amounts of data. How do you bring all this data from space or from the command centres back in Europe to the theatre? You will need high speed and resilience to transmit all this information.
One possibility is laser communication. Airbus has a project called Network For The Sky which is, among other technologies, looking into direct laser communication between satellites and airborne platforms, providing a very high data rate combined with resilient communication – safe against jamming. In addition, in another project mentioned earlier, we are working on a smart tanker. Here we are talking about using an MRTT, sat just behind the tactical area, that is able to provide, using artificial intelligence, all the necessary data (rather than just the fuel) to the fighter pilots in the theatre. These are bricks of what FCAS will need.
We also need to invest money into directional data links to get our own sovereign solutions.
Of course, Eurofighter will be compliant to the future standards and protocols of communication that will be required by an FCAS
How important is the development of an FCAS project for Europe?
Recent global developments show a clear need for European sovereignty. We certainly need to reduce dependency on US systems and create solutions that are tailored to European needs. Europe will also require the ability to operate missions jointly according to our own standards, based on sovereign solutions, while maintaining interoperability into NATO. However, Europe, over many decades, has been weakened by internal competition. There have been too many different platforms within Europe and there's a need to go for increased commonality. And if we want to be able to perform missions in a coalition in the future, we will need to develop the appropriate standards, especially regarding communications but in many other aspects too. Indeed, the European view, by design, because it's made up of many nations and industries participating together, is based on collaboration. At Airbus, while focusing on the resilience of future systems, we are pushing for open architecture solutions within FCAS. First, it will enable other solutions and companies to plug in and second, it will enable upgradeability of the system over decades. We know the threats will change so the ability to upgrade constantly to meet the changing threat environment is vital.
What do you see as the big obstacles in the way?
If we take European sovereignty seriously we will have to invest both in further upgrades for Eurofighter and for the development of an FCAS. Both will require serious money and the current budgetary plans don’t recognise the full extent of what needs to happen. The development of a new model system is not cheap and the level of ambition is high. A connected system, with new aircraft with a new propulsion system, with unmanned elements is something big and needs the commitment of nations to invest. You can’t go for the middle way, because you’d end up with something which can’t respond to your needs. Nations and industry also need to learn that what Europe really needs is for everyone to work together. We cannot repeat the scenarios of the early 80s where we ended with three fighter programmes. Collaboration has also the great advantage that you put money together, you get more volume and by adding more volume, then you get a higher end solution to your needs. In addition, in export terms, you have all the European nations rowing in the same direction rather than battling against one another.