Gen. Denis Mercier, French Air Force chief of staff. (French Air Force)
PARIS — The French Air Force is facing a problem that is increasingly familiar across Europe: How to remain relevant as wider government financial problems impose limits on capabilities and personnel.
Since his appointment as chief of the Air Force nine months ago, Gen. Denis Mercier has seen the serviceís relevance tested in operations against jihadists in northern Mali. At home he has contended with equipment cuts and other changes outlined in a recent defense white paper. Juggling the often contradictory pressures of affordability and operational capability has led Mercier to create an elite pool of highly trained pilots capable of reacting to any eventuality within hours, while a second tier of less highly trained crews would be kept at a readiness more suited to sustainment operations.
The French government white paper on defense has outlined a force with reduced fast jet and tanker/transport numbers, and beyond the first 15 A400M airlifters, there are questions over the pace of deliveries and final numbers. Details of how programs will be cut or stretched, or sometimes both, await an announcement of the new six-year budget law expected this summer.
But there are positives as well. Military space and unmanned reconnaissance vehicle programs continue. And the Air Force has avoided the complete axing of capabilities suffered by its British allies, with whom the French take the operational lead in Europe.
Q. What is the top priority for the Air Force in the wake of the defense white paperís publication?
A. My priority is to retain the ability of the Air Force to react to situations like Libya and Mali even though budgets are tight. The big difference for me is between the first entry, the high-level activity, and the capability to sustain an operation. Flying hours and other training activities have been reduced by roughly 20 percent and we are introducing a new format to restore those levels for certain key front-line units to ensure we have very highly skilled pilots and crews able to respond to any event within hours.
Q. So for some squadrons you want to reverse flying-hour reductions?
A. Itís a question of money. We cannot train all these guys for the highest missions, so we have devised a scheme where from 2016 we have a first echelon of pilots who will be highly trained and at a high state of readiness and a second level of pilots that will have less training with much of their flying done on a trainer. They will be employed to sustain operations once the second phase of operations, likely less intensive, is starting and after they have worked up their skills for two or three months. Itís not just fightersí crews. We are planning something similar on other aircraft types. We are still working on top- level pilot numbers, but for the second level I think we will be looking at about 50 pilots. But as a guide, for the Rafale we can estimate that we will have a minimum of five or six squadrons and about 28 pilots per squadron and those pilots will be highly trained with a minimum of 180 hours a year plus simulators, rather than the current level of around 150 hours, which is not sufficient. We will keep some pilots that come from operational units being scrapped and they will fly probably 40 hours on the Rafale and around 140 hours on a much cheaper trainer.
Q. What does this mean for trainer aircraft requirements?
A. We are looking at several solutions, but the type of aircraft I have in mind is something like a turbo-prop ó Pilatus PC-21 like ó where the aircraft has embedded simulation to allow you to replicate your front-line aircraft. We are in the process of starting a competition and hope to have an aircraft by the end of 2016. We are screening our acquisition options, including adopting a private finance initiative. Itís an ambitious timeline, but everybody has understood we can have better capability with this, save money and better train our pilots.
Q. The white paper is cutting fast jet numbers. How will that impact Rafale deliveries?
A. Rafale remains my priority, although we are slowing down deliveries in the face of an economic background that will be difficult for the next two to three years. So the purpose is to slow down a little bit with the pace of production being dependent on exports. Whatís essential is that Rafale production keeps going beyond 2020, and our intent is to keep a permanent momentum in the modernization of the fleet. Discussions are underway now over how we can manage the slowdown and retain the capability of the supply chain to support this and the export effort. So after 2020 we will still have production of Rafale because they will continue to replace the Mirage 2000D.
Q. Whatís the plan for the Mirage 2000D fleet?
A. We will keep and upgrade some of the Mirage 2000Ds. It will get some new weapons like the Hammer [precision-guided munition] but generally the upgrade will be sufficient to keep the fleet operational until the out-of-service date, which, at the moment, is 2025. Next year will see the withdrawal from service of some Mirage 2000 and the Mirage F-1s, and that will allow us to keep momentum on the Rafale. Our losses will be focused on the old Mirage fleets.
Q. Whatís the other big equipment priority?
A. Itís the Airbus tanker transports required to replace our 50-year-old C-135s and our strategic transport fleet [A310 and A340]. My target is to have the first one in service in 2017, but that is still under discussion. The white paper has defined the requirement at 12 rather than the 14 originally planned but thatís a reflection of the fact we are cutting fast jet numbers. I still think that 14 would be better. The thing about tankers is the more you have the more you need. Our configuration will have a cargo door to give us additional strategic lift.
Q. What are the lessons for the Air Force from Mali and Libya?
A. The first is the importance of command and control and its impact on improving our ability to plan and conduct operations quickly. Mali was the first time we planned all the operations from our joint force air component commander in Lyon in east of France and it worked very well.
Second, the requirement and capability to react in hours. Both conflicts demonstrated that 72 or even 48 hours can be too long to react when necessary.
Third, if we want quick reaction times you need good intelligence, including space-based assets, and the ability to integrate all the data in one loop. We did that in Mali. Now we are improving the network using Link 16. This is brand new for us and was tested in late May. Through Link 16 we can now disseminate air and ground data back to France thanks to a satellite communication integrated into our fighter fleet and create a recognized air picture.
Finally, we need tankers and transport. Strategic airlift is one thing, but tactical is very important as well.
Q. Was it the experiences from Libya that prompted you to sign a tripartite cooperation initiative with your British and American counterparts in March?
A. This idea mainly came out of the Libyan experience. There are only three nations in NATO that can react immediately and work together at such a high level. This is what we did in Libya and what we did to a certain extent in Mali.
Our aim is to work together to ensure we can mount air operations as one team and we are trying to remove impediments to doing that. We are conducting one to two exercises a year to drive forward the interoperability essential for those first few days of an operation. It is very ambitious but we have a strong will to do this.
Q. Despite the lessons of Mali, the white paper has put a question mark against the size of the A400M fleet.
A. We have a commitment for 50 and will receive the first 15 quite quickly starting this summer, but the tempo of deliveries and the total number to be delivered after are still under discussion. So far, there are no decisions, although I expect the discussions to be complete by the time the budget law is published.
Q. Will other parts of the airlift fleet be impacted?
A. A400M delivery delays mean we will keep some of the C-160s longer than expected in part to maintain transport capability, but also to keep crews trained ahead of the Airbus deliveries. Also, because the A400M is a new aircraft, we will have to discover what the availability levels will be. So until we have the first 15, we will keep some of the C-160s. We will also keep the C-130 and currently are competing an upgrade requirement to probably keep them beyond 2025.
Q. Have you made a final decision on acquiring Reaper unmanned air vehicles?
A. First we need to look at the short term. We are still awaiting the ministerís decision on acquiring 12 UAVs. My favorite is the Reaper, but it is still under discussion and I am still having discussions with the Israelis as well. If the target is to have the first platforms into service before 2017, and if we have any way to speed up delivery, we will explore that.
Q. Does that mean you have ruled out interest in a European-developed UAV?
A. There are two requirements, one short term and the other long term. For long term, I still believe it will be absolutely relevant that Europe has an industry that develops unmanned air vehicles. But, due to the delays we have accumulated in Europe, it is going to be after 2020. ■
By Andrew Chuter in Paris.
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