PARIS — France suffers from a dependence on Russian and Ukrainian airlifters for the strategic transport of military cargoes, and it also relies fully on U.S. air tankers for refueling Rafale fighter jets, asserted François Cornut-Gentille, a member of Parliament.
The Finance, General Economy and Budgetary Control Committee of Parliament's lower house, the National Assembly, adopted on March 28 the MP's report on French strategic air transport, in which risks of external reliance were made clear.
France "depends totally" on U.S. air tankers to refuel Rafales, Cornut-Gentille told journalists after the committee meeting. "That means our room for maneuver could be reduced in certain circumstances," he said.
"We have no idea what the Americans might decide in two years or three months," he said. "No idea at all."
"It is not a total dependence," Army Col. Patrik Steiger, spokesman for the French joint chiefs of staff, said March 30. "It is cooperation among allies. We are allies with the Americans, we are engaged in the Sahel region, Levant, and there is the principle of a ‘mutualization’ of available assets."
That includes "American support in refueling," he said, adding that the Defence Ministry just received the parliamentary report and would make a formal reply after the contents have been studied.
There are presently 23 leases, none of which relates to a critical mission, he said. Each of these deals meets the rules governing the award of contracts.
An uncertainty of U.S. support for NATO also called into question the availability of the strategic airlift capability, which flies a fleet of American C-17s, the report said. Each C-17 carries 77 tons of cargo.
The report cast a spotlight on a world in which France and some NATO members rely on Russian and Ukrainian aircraft, and it urged the MoD to pay closer attention to the high cost of leases and lack of competitive bids as well as rely on friendly ties at a time of uncertain geopolitics and heightened tension with Moscow.
"Ukraine and Russia hang a real Damocles swordover France in strategic transport," the report said. "Despite some great phrases, strategic autonomy is, in reality, a virtual effect."
There is a lack of certitude on the Ukrainian Antonov and Russian Ilyushin cargo planes for French military airlift, all the more so as there are just three companies flying a fleet of some 20 Antonov An-124s, the report said. The three firms are: Flight Unit 224, a company owned by the Russian Defence Ministry; Volga-Dnepr, a privately held Russian firm; and Antonov Airlines, a privately held Ukrainian company.
The An-124 carries 100 tons of cargo, while the largest airlifter, An-225, flies 250 tons. ADB owns the sole operational An-225.
To illustrate the risk of French reliance on leasing Russian operators, the report cited Moscow's cancellation in September 2015 of Flight Unit 224 leases for the An-124 booked by France. That was allegedly Moscow’s response to Paris’ Aug. 5 decision to ax the sale of two Mistral helicopter carriers, following Russian annexation of the Crimean Peninsula in Ukraine.
Those flights had been booked through a lessor, International Chartering Systems, or ICS, based here, which then turned to Volga-Dnepr. That Russian operator declined to accept a French lease, so ICS then asked Antonov Airlines of Ukraine, which agreed to fly its An-124 fleet to airlift French military kit.
The report raised a number of legal questions, including why an open competition failed to be held after Flight Unit 224 withdrew its flights.
ICS has an office in Singapore, ICS Air Cargo, mainly to lease tactical aircraft to the French Barkhane mission in sub-Saharan Sahel, the report said. That arrangement may be legal but raised the question of why the company booked tactical airlift out of Singapore for tactical airlift, while strategic transport was handled out of Paris.
ICS said it opened the Singaporen office to stay competitive with firms located in tax havens and where corporate tax was lower than that of the French rate, business magazine Challenges reported. The Singaporean office could also bypass the anti-Russian embargo adopted in the West.
A parliamentary source said ICS opened the Singaporean office in 2014, a year before the trade sanction was imposed.
The murky business world was reflected with a file of email exchanges on contract awards sent anonymously at the end of 2016 to selected media and two offices of the joint chiefs of staff working on military leases: the center for operational support and transport, and the specialist department for logistics and transport.
The "existence of this file and its distribution shows a deleterious climate," the report said.
Strategic Airlift Interim Solution, or SALIS, also relies on
the An-124 and Russian Ilyushin Il-76 transports, the report said. Britain and Canada pulled out of SALIS, with Finland, Greece and Sweden to follow. That leaves France and Germany the main partners in the airlift partnership.
That reliance on those planes makes little sense in view of the poor relations between the West and Moscow, the report said.
Britain and France have deployed forces to Estonia in a bid to bolster the Baltic states in response to a perceived Russian threat.
The report called for greater oversight by the French MoD and more competition in awarding leases.
In view of tough operational conditions, it was hard to find the operators, according to a French Air Force officer.
France relies heavily on strategic airlift, as the services have deployed overseas 6,650 troops, of which 4,000 are with the Barkhane mission in Sahel. There are long-distance flights with 4,100 kilometers between Paris and Bamako, the capital of Mali, and 4,200 kilometers between Paris and N’Djamena, the capital of Chad. Distances within the theater are also great, with 950 kilometers between Bamako and Gao, Mali, and 2,500 kilometers between N’Djamena and Bama, Burkina Faso.
cooled relations with France when Paris showed opposition to the Iraq War, and there is deep doubt in Europe over support from the Trump administration.