Europe May Move to Consolidate Their Two (Competing) 6th Generation Stealth Fighter Programs: Though a consolidation would diffuse program costs throughout the continent, it also runs the risk of many competing visions for what Europe’s next fighter should do.
One 6th Generation Stealth Fighter to Rule Them All?
A senior officer in the Italian Air Force believes it possible that program costs will force Europe to combine their two competing next-generation stealth aircraft platforms, arguing that the two competing programs could be too much for the continent to sustain.
“But it is natural that these two realities will merge into one, because investing huge financial resources in two equivalent programmes is unthinkable,” Italy’s Air Force Chief of Staff General Luca Goretti explained in an interview with Reuters.
Europe’s bi-polar effort to build a next fighter center around the Future Combat Air System, a French, Spanish, and German effort, and the British-led Tempest program.
Though Tempest is a British-led project, the next-generation fighter program includes Leonardo, the Italian defense contractor, and MBDA, a European arms manufacturer. The project also includes Sweden, with some interest previously shown by Japan, which is also trying to get a home-grown stealth fighter off the ground.
The Future Combat Air System, or FCAS, is very much a French-led effort, though Paris has brought Germany and Spain into the fold as well.
Gen. Goretti talked about the rationale for joining Tempest over FCAS, explaining that the British-led effort would allow Italy to play a more prominent role than would be possible within the confines of the French-led FCAS program.
None of the European countries involved in FCAS or Tempest currently build a home-grown stealth fighter, though several — Italy and the United Kingdom — operate variants of the United States-built F-35 Lighting II stealth fighter.
Germany, France, and Spain have eschewed the American stealth fighter thus far, opting instead to maintain their aging fleets of Eurofighters and Rafales. In addition, Spain and Germany still flying aged Hornet and Tornado fleets, respectively, fighters that are quite long in the tooth and unlikely to survive on a modern battlefield.
Germany’s need is perhaps most significant. The country still flies nearly 40-year-old Tornados, which are the only nuclear-capable fighter-bombers in the country. Once that platform retires, Germany would need another fighter capable of delivering American B61 nuclear bombs as part of NATO’s nuclear sharing agreement. Without a replacement, Berlin will, in effect, abandon its NATO allies and treaty obligations.
Tempest for Everyone in Europe?
While combined, the Europe-wide FCAS-Tempest program would offer funding advantages by diffusing costs amount the bloc and leveraging the continent’s diverse engineering and aerospace expertise, a European super-consortium would have to navigate multiple and perhaps differing expectations. Too many requirements could produce an ineffective fighter.
Caleb Larson is a multimedia journalist and Defense Writer based in Europe. He lives in Berlin and covers the intersection of conflict, security, and technology, focusing on American foreign policy, European security, and German society.