In the field of new generation combat aircraft, two programs face each other in the West. On the one hand, the SCAF program for Air Combat System of the Future, brings together Germany, Spain and France, with the aim of simultaneously developing a new platform, the Next Generation Fighter or NGF intended to replace the French Rafale and the German and Spanish Typhoons, as well as a set of systems evolving the aircraft into a new era of info-centric combat. On the other hand, the Next Generation Air Dominance, or NGAD, is the new program of the US Air Force which should initially replace the F-22 Raptor alongside the F-35A, but whose perimeter continues to evolve over time. the thread of growing tensions between Washington and Beijing, and a certain form of dislike of the US Air Force vis-à-vis Lighting II.
Beyond the operational and tactical differences that mark these two programs, it is interesting to compare their founding paradigms which seem to be based on very different approaches from each other, with notable consequences on the very conception of the evolution of the geostrategic situation. and its schedule, as well as the technological tempo that will mark the upcoming Sino-American competition.
Development period: SCAF 20 years vs NGAD 10 years
The first criterion, and not the least, to attract attention when comparing SCAF and NGAD, is none other than the large gap between the durations planned for the development of each of the two programs. Thus, the replacement for the F-22 Raptor must enter service before the end of the current decade, with a development period of less than 10 years, where the SCAF NGF should not enter service until 2035, and in all probability, rather around 2040. Several reasons condition this large gap, from single to double, in terms of development time. On the European side, the need to replace the Rafale and Typhoon will not be felt until after 2035 according to current planning, while the program itself, already slowed down by the difficulties of supra-national cooperation, is very ambitious. Technologically, since it is a question of going directly from the “4th generation” to the “6th generation” of combat aircraft, if this notion really makes sense. In addition, both the Rafale and the Typhoon had been developed over a period of more than 15 years, and European aircraft manufacturers are working to reproduce this pattern which had produced high performance aircraft.
On the American side, the problem is more complex. First, the imminence of a possible confrontation between US and Chinese forces around Taiwan forces the US Air Force to acquire devices with a large range of action, which is neither the case. of the F22, nor of the F35A, and this as quickly as possible. This need has also led to the acquisition of F-15EX, an interim solution intended to overcome the shortcomings of the two current American flagship fighters in this area. Second, this same US Air Force faces fiscal wall today for F-35 program, whose maintenance is so high that it would be necessary, within ten years, either to drastically reduce the number of aircraft in service, or to reduce the number of annual flight hours by devices, to fit within the planned budgetary framework. It is therefore essential for it to quickly find viable alternatives capable of responding to both to the operational problem of the Western Pacific, and the budgetary problem posed by the F35.
To achieve this, it relied on completely new industrial and operational paradigms to design and implement its future combat aircraft, making extensive use of digital modeling and testing, and the Agile design method widely used in the 'Digital engineering, as well as the use of open systems, these 3 criteria forming what it now calls e-Program, as can be the eT-7A or the F15EX. Beyond this technological approach, it is also committed to a radically new conception of the very nature of devices, taking great distances with the concepts of versatility, large series, and even scalability, to design more devices. specialized, over much shorter deadlines, making use of technologies for the most part already existing and made reliable by the demonstrator programs, in order to obtain aircraft that are much faster to develop and bring their operational benefits over a relatively short period of time. limited from 12 to 15 years before being replaced. This is the concept of e-Serie.
Aircraft lifespan: NGF 40 years vs NGAD 15 years
Fact, the operational lifespan of the new devices that will be part of the NGAD program, will be much shorter than that of the NGF of the SCAF program, 15 years against 40 to 50 years. Therefore, it is no longer necessary for the NGAD program to invest in advanced evolution capabilities, which would have allowed its devices to remain technologically relevant beyond their planned lifespan of only 15 years. This approach, very close to that which referred to in the 50s or 60s, makes it possible to adapt the dynamic development of platforms to the short and medium-term needs of the armed forces, as well as to integrate known and / or under development on short timeframes, without having to anticipate needs beyond a threshold that is difficult to predict.
Conversely, the SCAF NGF is inspired by one of the great successes of the Rafale, and to a lesser extent of the Typhoon, namely its extraordinary ability to evolve, allowing an aircraft that entered service in 2000 at the F1 standard to cross the generational barrier from the 4th to the 5th generation with the F4 then F5 standards, on the basis of the same cell, and therefore to reduce the need for investment in the renewal of the air fleet. However, this strategy, if it had adapted well to the particularly slow technological tempo of the 90s to 2010, turns out to be more difficult to implement in a technological tempo which would be comparable to that of the 50s or 60s, as seems to be the case. '' anticipate the US Air Force, in particular because of the arrival of China in this competition, a country which has a very great industrial and technological dynamism, and which obviously, puts the means for this, since has caught up, in 30 years of time, more than 20 years of its delay in the field of combat aircraft.
Versatility vs. Specialization
In addition to the much shorter lifespan of the devices, the NGAD program also ignores the absolute versatility of new generation combat aircraft, and therefore the large series paradigm, to return, a new faith as at the height of the American-Soviet competition, to smaller and specialized series. Thus, the replacement for the F-22 will be above all an air superiority fighter, and will be designed as such, without seeking to endow it with advanced land or sea strike capabilities. Nothing prevents him, not the continuation, to conceive a version specialized in the assault or the penetration based largely on this first apparatus, but that is not the doctrine. In fact, the use of advanced digital design of e-programs should make it possible to develop, for each of the missions, the best device of the moment at the best price, and as quickly as possible. As such, the US Air Force has been actively preparing the ground for several months, especially at the level of Congress, to develop within the NGAD program itself, an alternative to the F35A, less scalable but above all much less expensive, and better suited to specific features. of the peaceful theater.
Here again, the European program is in perfect opposition to the American program, since the NGF, like the Rafale, will have to carry out all missions in the spectrum of air warfare, including nuclear strikes, and will even have to be on board the future French nuclear aircraft carrier which is to replace the Charles de Gaulle in 2038. It should be noted in passing that these two characteristic missions, which will necessarily influence the technological trade-offs around the device, and therefore its costs, are repeatedly a stumbling block with the two other Spanish and especially German partners of the program. According to European doctrine, this great versatility will make it possible to achieve substantial savings in terms of production, since production lines and technological developments will be amortized over a larger number of devices, but also of implementation, since the training of personnel. maintenance and logistics chain will be simplified, with a single device to maintain. On the other hand, the investments, both in terms of initial design and evolution, will be very important, since it will be necessary to confer on the device performances and capacities giving it the advantage or, at least, allowing it to make a level playing field with specialized devices, if at all possible.
NGF against a family of devices
But this single-device strategy, even integrated into a dimension of a system of systems offering significant capacity for development, is not without certain limitations, and even certain risks. So the NGAD, in its current "known" form, is expected to develop at least two different devices, a heavy air superiority fighter to replace the F-22, and a single-engine fighter intended to replace the F16 against the F35A. Undoubtedly, like the F15 and Su-27 when they entered service, it will be difficult, not to say impossible, to compete with the replacement of the F22 in the field of air superiority, the aircraft being equipped, without the slightest doubt, specific characteristics in this area, particularly in terms of ceiling, top speed, rate of climb or radar power. Conversely, the NGAD's single-engine fighter will naturally be less efficient than the NGF, and probably specialized in assault as the F-16 was, but it should be, again without any doubt, much more economical to use, and therefore have a much larger potential market, while allowing its users to have significant air forces (unlike the F35A for example).
Indeed, to meet all the foreseeable missions, the NGF will have to be imposing, probably of the 30 tonne category, which necessarily will make it an expensive aircraft to purchase as well as to use, allowing only few forces. airways to acquire them. Therefore, the initially expected benefit of the large series, and versatility, may well limit the acquisitions of Paris, Berlin and Madrid, as well as a few wealthy clients in the Middle East, as was the case of the Typhoon. . In addition, the additional costs associated with this versatility will be permanent, whatever the mission, even when a less powerful device could largely do the trick. Finally, this cost constraint is likely to influence the volume of the air forces of its 3 member countries, unless the latter came, to supplement their forces, to acquire a less expensive aircraft, such as the replacement for the F16 of the NGAD program.
Development, acquisition and maintenance costs
Because the substance of the matter remains and remains the budgetary footprint of such programs, as we can see today with the F35, whose additional costs related to its versatility and its long-term technological ambitions are far from being offset by the serial effects promised by the manufacturer, to the point of ultimately threatening the operational power of the US Air Force itself. Then director of acquisitions of the US Air Force, Will Roper had also demonstrated that the use of paradigms of e-programs applied to the concept of e-Series, made it possible to lower operational costs (acquisition + maintenance + evolution ) a specialized device, produced in small series and with a short lifespan, well more than 30% compared to those of a large series and long-life program such as the F35, over the same period of time. In addition, this new doctrine would make it possible to revitalize the American industrial aeronautics sector, with more frequent and more contested competitions, in the face of market capture phenomena leading to windfall effects of very large programs. This budgetary flexibility was found in the development of the first demonstrator of the NGAD program, which cost only $ 3 billion and lasted only one year, where the development of the NGF demonstrator will cost more than $ 3. € billion over 4 to XNUMX years.
It is clear that, in this area as in others, the European SCAF program seems much closer to its predecessors Rafale and Typhoon, as well as to those of the F35 program, than to the paradigms implemented in NGAD. To the point that in the industrial sharing inherent in European cooperation, the SCAF program runs the risk of sacrificing part of the skills and know-how of certain large European groups, such as Thales for example, with almost no chance of being able to develop them elsewhere, since the program will be the only hunting reference for these 3 countries for at least 30 years. In addition, its structure excludes any possibility for new industrial players to emerge during this period, which is certainly not in the direction of better competitiveness of European industrial offers on a market that will be much more dynamic in the years to come. come than it has been in the past 30 years.
Tempest and F / A-XX
If NGAD is today at the forefront of innovation in the field of industrial aeronautical defense paradigms, and that SCAF does seem to be a pillar of conservatism in this area, two additional programs seem to have chosen intermediate trajectories. . Thus, the British FCAS, and its aircraft the Tempest, borrows many aspects from the NGAD program, like the digital design triptych, and even, in a way, specialization, since the Tempest is designed to ensure British air superiority by operating alongside the Royal Air Force's F35B, specializing in attack. On the other hand, it does not go so far as to integrate the design of a family of devices in its own right, and remains attached to scalability and therefore to a lifespan comparable to that of the Typhoon that it is to replace.
The US Navy's F / A-XX, also referred to as NGAD across the Atlantic although the two programs split several years ago, is still in its preliminary design phase. Obviously, the US Navy, which has already had the single-engine F35C imposed while it was waiting for a twin-engine aircraft, is now in a standby position, and leaves the US Air Force to clear the land. the field, both in terms of industrial doctrine and to lead the fight against the industrial and political power of the F35. For now, therefore, this program progresses discreetly, with ambitions which, like the British Tempest, would place it halfway between NGAD and SCAF. However, if the US Air Force were to demonstrate the total merits of its approach, and to obtain success in significantly reducing the number of F35As, there is no doubt that the US Navy would then switch to a similar approach.
Obviously, the American NGAD and European SCAF programs are based on opposing approaches, from a technological, industrial, budgetary and even operational point of view. If the paradigms of the US Air Force are very innovative and even sometimes bold, they are nonetheless based on a perfectly justified initial observation, that of the change of technological tempo between the decades to come, which will be marked by increasing competition. between the two Chinese and American superpowers, and the past decades, marked by a certain form of technological stagnation in the face of a noxious threat. By applying the precepts which have admittedly made it possible to develop high-performance aircraft, such as the Rafale and the Typhoon, but in a particularly slow technological cycle, Europe therefore risks finding itself not only unhooked from a military point of view, but also from an industrial and technological point of view.
Indeed, the experimentation carried out today by the US Air Force, and the technological achievements which stem from it and will result from it in the years to come, will very probably serve as a base for the overhaul of the American aeronautics and space industry, especially in the civil field, faced with European and soon Chinese competition which will be fiercer than ever. By applying these methods, American engineers will then be able to design the “on-demand” transport aircraft that airlines dream of in order to optimize their costs according to their routes and their needs. In addition, by increasing the number of players, and the competition for each call for tenders, the US armies will greatly revitalize the entire aeronautics sector, open up significant investment prospects, and increase the competitiveness of US offers on the international scene. In this case, therefore, there is much more than a simple competition concerning the supposed performance of future fighter planes, but the very future of the two most important aeronautical sectors on the planet. It is clear that today, innovation is across the Atlantic.