Future Combat Air System

Responsible use of new technologies in the "Future Combat Air System" (FCAS)

The Future Combat Air System (FCAS) is the most ambitious European defence project of the coming decades and a milestone of high technology in Europe. At the heart of the new air defence system, which is to successively replace existing platforms from 2040, is the Next Generation Weapon System (NGWS). In this system, a new combat aircraft works together with unmanned components, so-called remote carriers (manned-unmanned teaming). In addition, an Air Combat Cloud ensures real-time information for all players involved. The project opens up new security and military possibilities, but at the same time ethical and legal challenges become visible as if under a magnifying glass. As the first major defence policy project in German history, FCAS will therefore be accompanied from the outset by a "Arbeitsgemeinschaft Technikverantwortung" (Technology Responsibility Working Group). The aim of the joint exchange of ideas: "ethical and legal compliance by design".

How is it ensured that human responsibility in FCAS is fully guaranteed at all times and under all circumstances? This is the question that is at the heart of the newly founded "AG Technikverantwortung" (Working Group on Technology Responsibility). Important stakeholders from ministries, authorities and the German Armed Forces as well as the German information and engineering sciences, represented by universities and research institutions such as Fraunhofer and DLR, are involved in this working group. However, the participation of society as a whole, represented by a broad cross-section of political foundations, universities, and political and social science think tanks, is crucial for success. The members are solely committed to their conscience. The results of the critical discourse are recorded and published on the website www.fcas-forum.eu for maximum transparency.

Discussion of ethical and international law "guard rails"

Initiators of the independent ethics committee are the Fraunhofer Institute for Communication, Information Processing and Ergonomics FKIE and Airbus Defence and Space ADS Together, they are developing the technological basis for FCAS. This gave rise to the idea of advancing the operationalization of ethical and legal principles through appropriate information and engineering design. The challenge here is twofold: firstly, to define the corresponding principles; secondly, to implement them technologically. The aim of the working group, which was established in September 2019 with a first kick-off meeting, is the definition and technical implementation of ethically and under international law based "guard rails".

Pioneering role in future technologies

FCAS will do far more than previous air combat systems such as Eurofighter or Rafale. Future technologies such as Artificial Intelligence (AI), Big Data Analytics, crypto components or human-machine interactions will be used in the project. The latest generation of manned jets are elements of a complex and comprehensively networked "system of system". As "loyal wing men", "remote carriers" protect the pilots and accompany them on combat missions. Open system architectures permit the further integration of existing platforms. A central "Air Combat Cloud" provides all relevant information to the actors of a mission in real time. Whereas it used to be necessary to gain air sovereignty, in the digital age it is the decision-making authority that determines the success or failure of a mission.

human being remains in the centre as a decision-maker

The starting point of the technological and strategic planning is that with the new combat aircraft to be developed, a manned component remains at the centre of FCAS. Human decision making thus remains the linchpin of all conceivable FCAS mission scenarios. For FCAS, too, what was laid down in the Military Aviation Strategy 2016 continues to apply: "The use of weapons [takes place] exclusively under human control."

Technical controllability and personal responsibility are thus key topics in the discussion about FCAS. The envisaged overall architecture of the "Air Combat Cloud" contributes to this by reducing the complexity of future missions for those responsible for operations and by facilitating human decision-making. Technological reduction of complexity is an important development goal in FCAS.

The principle of "responsibility" is more fundamental than "human-in-the-loop" or "human-on-the-loop". Automated defense technologies can also be responsible, for example if the human reaction time is too short or the amount of data is too large. For this reason, digitisation in defence and security must ensure both technical controllability and responsible use. Even in automated systems, humans must be involved, not only by deciding to use the system but also by configuring it in such a way that "meaningful human control" is comprehensively guaranteed.

Concretely this means: Based on a set of rules defined by humans, it may be necessary and justified to allow automated decision making. However, one must be able to evaluate whether the underlying set of rules is applicable and ethically justifiable in the respective application.