FRENCH AIR Forces’ Commander in Chief General Lanata appeared before the French National Assembly’s Committee on National Defence and Armed Forces on October 18 to discuss France’s Defence Programming Act 2014–2019 and the presentation of the 2018 Defence Budget Act. This meeting produced quite a few interesting facts.
According to General Lanata, the operations in Iraq and Syria are changing as the number of strongholds of the so-called Islamic state is dwindling. The result is that the different groups are operating in zones that are becoming smaller all the time. The Armée de l’Air is even anticipating potential changes in this conflict. General Lanata said: “The land forces are more and more intertwined as the noose is tightening around Daesh [ISIS] in Syria, and the same is happening in the air. The coalition aircraft operate daily in a confined area, close to Russian Sukhois and Syrian MiGs, in zones covered by Russian and Syrian surface-to-air defence systems.” Lanata did not want to speculate on potential consequences of these close encounters over Syria, but said: “We are now operating in increasingly contested airspace. The surface-to-air defences and the latest generation fighter aircraft are deployed by armed forces on both sides of the isle.” The commander in chief continued to say that air forces have been warning about this new reality for years and that this will be something to take into account regarding external operations. Without saying what they entailed, Lanata referred to recent “incidents that could have had serious consequences and could have changed the character of this crisis”. At the beginning of Opération Chammal, there were few surfaceto- air threats over Iraq and no opposing aircraft. This is currently still the situation in the Sahel region for the Barkhane forces. However, the shift from an asymmetric conflict to a symmetric status quo in Syria where rivals have the same resources means that personnel find themselves in a completely different situation. Lanata also talked about the next phase in fighting combatants in Syria now that Raqqa has fallen: “At this stage it is difficult to accurately predict how this campaign will proceed in the months to come. After Raqqa, the operations will continue to eliminate Daesh [ISIS] in the lower Euphrates valley. The stabilisation phase following the collapse of the caliphate will certainly be long and demanding in terms of intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance [ISR] and air support, even when less intense than what we have carried out until now.” The General explained the next phase of military operations is essential, as it normally influences the restart of political and diplomatic processes. The Armée de l’Air sees its forward operating base in Jordan as a key facility in the months to come as the proximity of the base to the areas of operations means that the fighters can operate without supporting tankers.
More aircraft, personnel and armament
The Armée de l’Air is performing well above the required levels stipulated in France’s Defence Programming Act for 2014–2019: 20 fighter jets deployed instead of the planned 12; three forward operating bases (Jordan, Niger and Chad) instead of the one contained in the programming act; four theatres of operation instead of the one that was planned for. These operations are taking a toll on other operations. The Armée de l’Air has deployed similar numbers of fighter aircraft in the past (e.g. Kosovo and Libya), but as General Lanata explained, the air force had more aircraft on strength and those deployments lasted six months on average. Barkhane and Chammal have been running simultaneously since the fall of 2014 and the impact of the two operations is felt everywhere in the organisation. General Lanata said: “In 2016, we carried out 7,500 flying hours on fighter aircraft from our sole deployed base in Jordan. Even though we only have seven aircraft deployed there on average, this represents the activity of 85 combat ready pilots when we hypothesise that each pilot flies half of their allocated annual flying hours during the deployment, which I find too much, seeing as they also have to train their entire skillset. Eighty-five pilots is a third of our current air force capacity being used on one sole base in Jordan!’
The General therefore wants to tackle current problems with insufficient personnel and to expand the projected numbers of aircraft for the Armée de l’Air. According to Lanata, the air force needs 18 A330 MRTTs instead of the planned 12. The aircraft should also be delivered ahead of the current schedule, as the serviceability problems with the C-135FR are increasing due to the aircraft’s age. Although the actual serviceability ratings of the C-135 are confidential because the aircraft are part of the nuclear deterrent force, General Lanata did point out that the hours of maintenance per flying hour has gone up from 20 to 40 in the last ten years. Furthermore, Lanata said the next Defence Programming Act should increase the size of the French fighter fleet. Under the current act, France should have 225 fighter aircraft by 2021 (40 with the Aéronavale and 185 with the Armée de l’Air). With the impact of current operations taken into account, Lanata estimates that the Armée de l’Air’s fighter fleet should be increased to 215, which would mean the service will have an additional 30 fighters after 2021. When asked how the air force could increase its fighter fleet, Lanata answered: “We can keep the oldest aircraft types flying a little while longer and at the same time modernise additional Mirage 2000Ds on top of the 55 that are already planned.”
With regard to air-to-ground ordnance, General Lanata mentioned the air force continues to increase its stocks after recently warning the French Ministry of Defence they were depleting rapidly. Lanata said: “The situation is under control for 250kg-class bombs. However, I continue to push for integration of the AASM on the Mirage 2000D and the GBU-49 on the Rafale in order to facilitate our operations. I believe that splitting up the ammunition according to the type of aircraft is contrary to common sense and I am weighing my words here. I also think that we should acquire 500kg and 1,000kg bombs with an allweather capability.”
Deliveries planned for 2018
In 2018, the Armée de l’Air should take delivery of its first A330 MRTT (and sign the order for the last three of the 12 currently planned), its first of two new Beechcraft King Air 350 light ISR aircraft, its first eight PC-21 training aircraft, three extra Rafales (to replace those diverted and delivered to Egypt in 2016), two additional A400Ms, and a second C-130J (the first should be delivered in December 2017). The service will also receive the new METEOR air-air missile next year.
Furthermore, several modernisation programmes should start in 2018. The Armée de l’Air will order 55 modernisation kits for the Mirage 2000D Mid- Life Update, start the Rafale F4 upgrade programme and start the development of the MICA air-air missile replacement. An electronic intelligence programme is also planned that will form the basis for the retirement of the two C-160G Gabriel aircraft in 2023. Some of the programmes described here will be delayed by up to six months due to a cancellation of €850 million in the defence budget for next year. Although this budget cut extends over all branches of the French Armed Forces, the Armée de l’Air will have to wait for the installation of some ISR systems on the Beech 350 it will receive next year. Also, the Mirage 2000D modernisation kits will be ordered half a year later than originally planned, although General Lanata said this would not impact the delivery dates of the Mirage 2000D MLUs to the operational squadrons. The special forces will also have to wait longer before they can order an additional H225M Caracal. Two out of the 18 aircraft fleet, which is jointly used by the Aviation Légère de l’Armée de Terre and the Armée de l’Air, have been severely damaged in recent years. One of the airframes will be repaired (estimated at 24 months), but the other airframe is a write-off and will have to be replaced.