Don’t expect future combat aircraft projects to eject human crew, says Douglas Barrie of the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

The extent of the economic impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, besides the tragic and continuing loss of life, can only begin to become more clear during the course of 2021.

Defence expenditure will, irrespective of the uptick in UK funding, not be exempt. Cancellations, cuts, and programme delays are all likely to feature as countries attempt to absorb the economic damage. Air forces will not escape the pressure, but do not expect to see next-generation combat aircraft developments shelved willy-nilly as a result.

New Generation Fighter FCAS

Source: Airbus Defence & Space

Next generation of strike assets will be complemented by unmanned systems

There are at least eight tactical combat aircraft projects under way today: two in the USA, three in Europe and three in the Indo-Pacific region. Irrespective of their stages of development, all are designed around a cockpit, putting paid to any notion that the era of the crewed combat aircraft is at an end.

Several factors continue to keep the ejection seat and its occupant, or occupants, in the designs now being worked on. Air power remains dependent not only on technology and innovation, but also on people. There is also a strand of conservatism that when coupled with the investment required runs counter to risk taking: particularly if the project is at the core of an air force’s future combat fleet.

More important in the crewed versus uninhabited debate is that the pace of progress on the latter has been slower than many anticipated. There have been numerous false starts in the development and introduction into service of high-end unmanned combat air vehicles. Simpler unmanned air vehicles fitted with air-to-surface munitions have seen wider and ongoing adoption.

Autonomy, rather than increased automation, remains a challenging goal, and technical, legal and ethical issues all remain to be navigated, successfully or otherwise. Uninhabited systems in the near-to-medium term will complement, rather than replace crewed platforms.

The worsening security environment combined with the risk of peer or near-peer war is also reinforcing interest in high-end air domain capabilities. A war between post-industrial nations would involve kinetic and non-kinetic activity across all domains, with the ability to contest and operate in the air (and in space) fundamental to the outcome.


The capacity to ensure air superiority remains a tenet of the ‘Western way’ of war. This, however, will likely not reflect the air supremacy or air dominance envisaged in the past. Rather, it will be based on the ability to sustain air superiority in a given space for a given period of time to prosecute a mission or to act as an operational enabler.

The permissive air environments of recent wars that have involved the USA and its allies will, in a peer-on-peer conflict, be replaced by high attrition rates. The gap in capability between the USA and its competitors has narrowed – particularly in the case of China, viewed by Washington as its ‘pacing threat’.

The US Air Force and US Navy are now looking at their next generation multi-role fighter needs, with the geography of the Indo-Pacific a potential requirements driver. Combat radius will likely be of increased importance and coupled with the aim of carrying more weapons internally, this means the platform will be no smaller, and possibly larger, than the current generation.

One implication of this is that the USA’s next-generation fighter programme may not produce a Lockheed Martin F-16- or F-35-style platform easily accommodated also as an export product.

Europe has its own challenges in this arena. A failure to adequately consolidate the defence aerospace industry has left Europe pursuing three – if Turkey is included – combat aircraft developments.

France and the UK, despite the rhetoric of the 2010 Lancaster House defence co-operation agreement, remain unable to align defence-aerospace requirements and industry. France is leading the New Generation Fighter with Germany and Spain as partners, while the UK is heading the Tempest project with Italy and Sweden supporting. Both are nested within wider Future Combat Air System projects also including adjunct uninhabited systems and weapons.

Whether current European multinational constructs are the same as those that may deliver the next generation is also open to question. But what is not in doubt is that there will be crew in the cockpit.

Douglas Barrie is senior fellow for military aerospace at the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies.