Italian-British-Japanese GCAP 6th generation fighter program specializes in air superiority

Announced at the 2018 Farnbourouh air show, the Futur Combat Air System program and the British 6th generation Tempest fighter was then perceived by many experts as a proud response to the announcement of the upcoming launch of the Franco-German SCAF program in autumn 2017. And even if European partners, such as the Italian Leonardo or the missile MBDA, participated in the British program, many questions remained about fiscal sustainability of such a program by London.

Nonetheless, thehe political determination of the British did not waver, and the first significant investments for the development of the program were not long in being announced, with in passing an economic model piloted by PWc based not on public expenditure, but on the budgetary and social balance of the investment made. In fact, where SCAF struggled to overcome Franco-German differences and saw its deadlines slip by more than one year per year, the FCAS continued its work, to the point of attracting new state partners. First of all Italy in January 2021, then a year later, Japan by merging the European Tempest program and Japanese FX.

In fact, today, not only is the FCAS program, since renamed Global Combat Air Program or GCAP, secure, but it even offers much more robust structural parameters than does the SCAF program, marked by a year of showdown between Dassault Aviation and Airbus Defense & Space for piloting the 1st pillar of the program aimed at designing the Next Generation Fighter, the combat aircraft at the heart of the system of systems.

Indeed, on the one hand, the complementarity of know-how within GCAP facilitates industrial sharing within the program, especially since Great Britain, because of its experience, remains the undisputed pilot and in particular the designer of the Tempest fighter plane. In addition, the ambitions put forward by the 3 partners of the GCAP program in terms of defense investment are all higher than those put forward by their mirrors of the SCAF program, with in particular Japan, which is aiming for an army budget of more than $100 billion. where Germany is only aiming for $85 billion. Finally, the 3 countries share a similar architecture for the future of their air forces.

Perceived as more robust than the British program at its launch, the SCAF is today much less sure of its relative strengths

Thus, London, like Tokyo and Rome, are already major users of the F-35 Lightning II, in particular of the B version with vertical or short take-off and landing to arm the British Queen Elizabeth and Prince of Walles aircraft carriers, the aircraft carriers Japanese Izumo and Kaga light aircraft and Italian aircraft carriers Cavour and Trieste. In addition, it is likely that like the Japanese air self-defense forces and the Italian air forces, the Royal Air Force will acquire F-35As in the future in addition to the F-35Bs of its naval aviation, so as to densify his ability to strike and suppress opposing defenses.

The situation is much less clear within the SCAF program, where France effectively wants a fully versatile aircraft to replace its Rafales, while Germany and most likely Spain will at least deploy a specialized fleet of F-35s. , the first to ensure the nuclear mission of NATO, the second to arm its aircraft carrier Juan Carlos I, with a very significant risk that additional orders will come, in particular to compensate for the shifts in the schedule of the SCAF program.

However, beyond these technological and economic aspects, these elements imply that the two programs SCAF and GCAP could well have a very different purpose, the second aiming more and more openly to become, like the American NGADs, a device of air superiority more than a fully versatile aircraft.

Thus, on the occasion of the DSEI show held in the London suburbs last week, several information concerning the configuration of the GCAP were revealed, in particular by Major General Masaki Oyama leading the GCAP program development division within the Japan Acquisition, Logistics and Technology Agencys.

He presented for the first time the sensor integration and fusion system, designated by the acronym ISANKE (Integrated Sensing and Non Kinetic Effects) as well as the integrated communication system designated by the acronym ICS, both jointly developed by Mitsubishi Electric, Leonardo UK, Leonardo and ELT. The ISANKE system will bring together in a unified system the detection capabilities and sensors of the device as well as its remote vectors (drones), but also the means of self-defense, and in particular of jamming and decoy, while offering a synthetic vision advanced to the crew to make the best use of the means available.

The ICS system, on the other hand, will allow the device to communicate with all elements of the system of systems, including other devices, drones as well as support devices, land and naval forces and equipment, not to mention spatial abilities. The purpose of this architecture, all in all classic when we talk about 6th generation, will be to allow the device to seize and maintain air superiority, de facto designating what will be the main mission of the device. .

The US Navy's NGAD program also aims to design an aircraft with real specialization in the field of air superiority.

The specialization of GCAP in the field of air superiority is in no way surprising. Already, the NGAD programs of the US Air Force and the US Navy also aim to develop above all a device specialized in this mission, even if the Navy program, due to its designation F/A-XX , and its justification, namely the replacement of the F/A-18 Super Hornets, indicates that the aircraft will also have strike capabilities, even if this mission will be delegated to the F-35C as a priority.

In addition, like all 6th generation programs, GCAP will rely on Loyal Wingman and Remote Carrier type drones, which will not only extend detection and engagement capabilities in the air domain, but also in the air-ground or air-surface domain. Thus, even if the GCAP like the NGAD will be specialized for air superiority, they will be far from being helpless in other areas, due to the versatility of their accompanying drones. Finally, for the 3 air forces, the new aircraft will replace aircraft dedicated to air superiority, the Typhoon within the British and Italian air forces, the F-15J and the F-2 within the Japanese self-defense forces.

Still, if the specialization of the NGAD and GCAP obviously makes sense, because of the complementarity with the F-35, it also demonstrates the now perfectly perceived limits of the Lockheed-Martin aircraft in this area. Thus, if the capabilities of the Lighting II in strike, suppression or penetration missions are proven, its limited performance, particularly in terms of speed, ceiling, radius of action and maneuverability, led the air forces better equipped to design specialized aircraft in this field, and therefore complementary to the F-35. The many customers of the Lockheed-Martin hunter implementing exclusively the Lightning II, in particular Finland, Norway or Canada which must protect vast air zones, will probably appreciate.

Conversely, this specialization opens up an opportunity for the positioning of the SCAF to make it a new versatile multirole device, effective in all areas, as was already the specification of the Rafale which, in the end, has nothing had to envy the Typhoon in terms of air superiority, while being much more efficient in the air-to-ground and air-to-surface domains. Hopefully Berlin, and possibly Madrid, will not push to align SCAF's philosophy with that of GCAP or the NGADs, turning to the F-35 as well.

Article from March 21 in full until June 11, 2023

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