At the French Ministry of Defense's booth in the Paris Air Show this week, the French Defense Procurement Agency (DGA) proudly displayed what will soon be the crown jewel of the French air force's aircraft fleet: an armed drone designed in collaboration with the UK that is expected to assist its fighter jets by 2030.
This drone or UCAV (Unmanned Combat Air Vehicle) is called the "Future Combat Air System" or FCAS. Inspired by its French and British precursors — the nEUROn, developed by Dassault Aviation, which first took flight in December 2012, and the Taranis, developed by BAE Systems and first launched in August 2013 — this new project likely will catch up with the Americans, who have made significant advances in combat drone technology with their X47B.
Presentation of the nEUROn, a prototype developed by Dassault Aviation and used as a basis for FCAS.
"The combat drone will act in the earliest days of a mission to enter a theater alone," a DGA expert told VICE News on Wednesday at the Paris Air Show. This next-generation drone will effectively clear the way for other aircraft, such as the Dassault Rafale, a French multirole combat aircraft manufactured by Dassault Aviation, which provides fighter jets to France.
These drones will be sent to carry out the most dangerous parts of a mission, namely destroying anti-aircraft defense systems in the targeted area and to pinpoint any hostile forces in the area. The FCAS will be stealthy; its "radar signature" is about the size of a dragonfly — nearly invisible — despite its actual 50-foot wingspan. After the FCAS has cleared the area, piloted jets will be able to enter the zone and carry out the remainder of the mission in a less dangerous environment.
Cutaway illustration of the weapons carried by the FCAS (Photograph from a video presented at the Paris Air Show by Pierre Longeray/VICE News)
The DGA allowed several visitors (the first days of the air show were closed to the public and only open to professionals) to better envision these sorts of missions with a huge curved panoramic screen set up within the air show booth. Small groups lined up to take turns watching a virtual mission that was in effect a demo — almost a Call of Duty: Drone Edition. The interactive aspect of the experience, however, was choosing whether or not to bombard a target with the FCAS. The premise was as follows: a FCAS drone comes to an unidentified mountainous coastal zone. On the ground, artillery batteries and armed vehicles could be seen, their firing range and positions were indicated with icons.
Photo of the screen for the FCAS demonstration at the Paris Air Show (VICE News/Pierre Longeray)
A delegation member in full uniform didn't waver when the FCAS demonstration asked him to authorize the strike. "Strike authorized," the military representative said curtly. Two FCAS exploded the antiaircraft missile batteries, then the Rafale jets took over, and the demo ended there. And after that? We'll have to wait until 2030 to find out.
Presentation video of a FCAS mission at the DGA booth in the Paris Air Show.
The FCAS "is designed to enter theaters that are high-intensity and are heavily defended. Developed and fully equipped nations can pose a threat to France and its allies in the future," the DGA drone specialist told VICE News. "In that regard the combat drone will set us apart from other armament systems."
For now, France is only making use of drones for reconnaissance, not for launching strikes against ground targets. The difference between the FCAS and these existing surveillance and attack drones, such as the Reaper, is the ability "to enter nonpermissive theaters," a DGA expert clarified. "To use surveillance drones, superior aircraft have to be used beforehand [to clear the area of threats]. The FCAS has greater survivability than surveillance drones when it comes to penetrating these areas."
The FCAS is a "large platform," said the DGA expert. This drone will have a 16-meter wingspan (just over 50 feet), as compared to the Rafale's 10.86 meters (35.6 feet). It's a combat aircraft, but not an air-superiority fighter. Like other current drones, the FCAS cannot successfully undertake air-to-air combat. That's a mission still reserved for aircraft with pilots onboard — like the Rafale.
A mock-up of the FCAS on display at the Paris Air Show with a mock-up of the nEUROn in the background. (Pierre Longeray/VICE NEWS)
The FCAS project began in November 2014, when France and the UK agreed to do a feasibility study on developing prospective combat drones together: the French had done the nEUROn (in partnership with Sweden, Switzerland, Italy, Greece, and Spain) and the UK had done the Taranis. The nEUROn and the Taranis were merely "technology demonstrators without operational abilities," the DGA said. The FCAS merged aspects of the nEUROn and Taranis projects, and is currently designed to carry weapons and not just do flight demonstrations.
From top to bottom: the nEUROn, the Rafale, and a Falcon jet — all Dassault projects — in flight in a presentation video shot by the brand.
If the FCAS is equipped with weapons, it would simply be able to destroy anti-aircraft defense systems. Calling these FCAS missions "zone clearing" would allow the use of these drones to stay within European drone-usage regulations. In contrast to the United States, France and the Council of Europe have refused to carry out targeted airstrikes against individuals, particularly due to collateral deaths frequently associated with these types of attacks. The DGA insists that, despite the FCAS's autonomy, "men are necessary for the machine, and supervise its use."
The partnership between the British and the French is ideal for developing the FCAS because "we have the same operational needs, identical target dates, and similar industrial strategies," the DGA said. Dassault Aviation and BAE Systems, which are responsible for developed respectively, the nEUROn and the Taranis, are both stakeholders in the FCAS's development. Rolls-Royce and Safran are collaborating on the engine design. Thalès and Selex ES are also involved, most likely for the digital components.
The DGA, however, insisted that the FCAS is "meant to become a European program, and the door is open to appropriate partners."