Haze on the horizon: the challenges and uncertainties of Europe’s future combat aircraft plans

By Mark Bobbi

This is an extract from an article published in Jane’s Defence Weekly and available as part of Jane’s Defence Equipment and Technology Intelligence Centre.

In 2017 France and Germany announced their intention to develop a sixth-generation combat aircraft to replace the Typhoon, Tornado, and Rafale aircraft that are currently in service. BAE Systems, Leonardo, and Saab almost instantly expressed interest in participating in the multi-billion-Euro programme, which is expected to be led by Airbus and France’s Dassault Aviation. Mark Bobbi reports.

France and Germany hope to develop a roadmap for a sixth-generation combat aircraft programme this year, ideally with concept studies and a hardware demonstration going on until the mid-2020s. This would be followed by a definitive system development and demonstration (SDD) effort, resulting in initial operational capability (IOC) and an in-service date in about 2045, 10 years later than the comparable US Air Force (USAF) Next-Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) aircraft (also known as the Penetrating Counter Air platform).

The United Kingdom’s position in the programme is questionable because of the ongoing Brexit process. However, such a programme without the United Kingdom seems unlikely, given Rolls-Royce’s propulsion experience together with BAE’s research and development (R&D) prowess, production capabilities and F-35 learning. The challenge for the United Kingdom is whether to support the US-led NGAD effort, which will be based around a Joint Strike Fighter-type model, or a Euro proposal that will be Franco-German led and based on an Organisation for Joint Armament Co-operation (OCCAR) Typhoon development and production model.

Why now?

Why is Europe considering spending many billions of Euros on a new manned combat aircraft? In the European tradition the most important reason is to retain industrial capability. In an era with industrial ‘peers’ in development or production of fifth-generation combat aircraft, industrial policy is paramount. Analysis by Jane’s on Chinese, Indian, Japanese, Russian, South Korean, and Turkish advanced combat aircraft efforts suggests that, of these countries, China represents the biggest threat, with two aircraft to be concerned about right now. Furthermore, with the United States spending hundreds of billions of dollars on fifth-generation aircraft and beginning development of sixth-generation bombers and fighters (the B-21 Raider long-range strike bomber and NGAD), there is a danger that Europe will fall so far behind in advanced combat aircraft development capabilities that it would risk the complete collapse of its military aircraft industry and a strategic problem of biblical proportions. That simply will not happen – at least according to defence industry insiders and supporting politicians in France and Germany.


Another big question is what will such a programme cost? Some are calling this programme a fifth-generation fighter and others say it will be a sixth-generation aircraft. Its IOC of 2040-45 suggests it will be a sixth-generation aircraft, although Europe has not developed a fifth-generation aircraft aside from BAE’s participation in the F-35 and that of Rolls-Royce in the aircraft’s short take-off/vertical landing (STOVL) propulsion system. So Europe has a lot of catching up to do, which will be expensive. There have been estimates in the region of USD50 billion, which, based on precedent, are not out of the question.

This is an extract from an article published in Jane’s Defence Weekly and available as part of Jane’s Defence Equipment and Technology Intelligence Centre. Learn more about Jane’s defence equipment and technology solutions.