The French Air Force ranks among the world’s finest thanks to the high quality of its people, training and equipment, yielding a ready, agile and highly responsive force.
Time and again it has demonstrated its ability to respond to crises immediately, whether in Afghanistan, Libya or Mali.
But like several other first-rung air forces, that readiness across the broad spectrum of air power is in jeopardy in the wake of deep budget cuts, particularly fighter units that are expensive to train and keep current.
Unlike a transport or tanker that can perform its job everyday, fighter pilots have to spend time practicing their complex craft under realistic circumstances.
To preserve as much capability as possible, French Air Force Chief Gen. Denis Mercier has made a decision unimaginable even a few years ago: to create a two-tiered force.
His front-line fighter pilots need at least 180 hours of flying hours a year, as 2013 budget cuts have lowered training to 150 hours annually, insufficient to preserve multimission skills.
So, to restore normal flight activity, Mercier promotes new ways of training. On one hand, a front line will be immediately ready to fulfill all the missions assigned to the Air Force (deterrence, air defence, overseas missions including first entry).
On the other hand, the rest is a team of senior fighter pilots, posted as instructors, but ready to retrain under short notice in order to reinforce the front-line forces or to replace them in long duration missions.
These pilots will spend only about 40 hours a year flying the Rafale, but more time in both Rafale simulators and flying high-performance turboprop trainers with embedded training, a system to be implement at Cognac Air Base in 2016.
Thirteen fighter squadrons would be designated “first circle” — units able to respond immediately to any operational requirement.
“Second circle” pilots would require two to three months of additional training to bring them up to combat status.
Indeed, even the US Air Force, regarded as the world’s leading air armada, is moving toward such a two-tier force, thanks to automatic defense cuts known as sequestration that have gutted training and readiness accounts for all but units bound for combat operations.
But unlike its French counterpart that tends to be involved in small numbers as part of broader coalitions, America’s Air Force is a worldwide operation that undergirds global security.
Sadly, these automatic cuts are unlikely to be undone anytime soon, so more thoughtful strategy toward cutting is needed in place of the current indiscriminate approach.
The demand to do more with less is the new normal. Readiness is an expensive business and France isn’t alone in working to map a more economical way of doing business.
What’s needed is increased collaboration in allied air training to better ensure that each sortie flown builds air combat skills and closer multinational links, a vital move as the mission in Afghanistan proved, serving as a masters course that schooled countless leaders in the art of coalition warfare.