PARIS — As deputy chief of staff for plans and programs with the French Air Force, Maj. Gen. Frédéric Parisot is the go-to person if one wants to know the force’s plans for the future.
And so Defense News caught up with him ahead of the Paris Air Show at his office in the new building for the Armed Forces Ministry in southwest Paris. The Air Force officer tackled strategies, aircraft projects and the impact of Brexit.
In November, the Air Force chief of staff, Gen. Philippe Lavigne, announced a new strategic plan known as the “Flight Plan” to ensure the Air Force is “powerful, audacious, agile and connected.” Can you expand on that?
“Powerful” means, first, that we keep our airborne nuclear deterrent, which keeps us on our toes because if ever the president tells us we have to use it, then we need to be instantaneously ready. We will be getting a new nuclear weapon system in the first half of the 2030s to replace the ASMP-Amélioré. It means we remain capable of being first in theater, that our equipment remains up to the minute. The F4 standard of the Rafale, the A400M, new electronic warfare capacities, the arrival of our second multirole tanker transport in July and others to follow — and that these aircraft will by 2025 be able to communicate directly with the Rafale — are all part of remaining powerful.
By “audacious,” we mean in our innovations. One has to be curious and ready to take calculated risks because innovations are paid for by taxpayers. The new Agency for Defense Innovation is going to play an extremely important role.
“Agile” means that we can adapt to a new working environment. For example, the future pilot is likely to spend more time managing services than actually flying the aircraft. The F4 version of the Rafale already has a virtual assistant.
And “connected,” the meaning of which is obvious for equipment, mainly means that the Air Force wants to remain linked to society, partners and youth.
What is next for the Rafale after F4? And what about interoperability with the F-35 fighter jet?
The F4 standard is open ended. We know that every seven to 10 years we need to integrate new technology, but starting with the F4 these are likely to be software updates rather than hardware. So the lessons we learn from the F4, and whatever new technology becomes available in the future, will lead to an F5 version, which will then lead to the Future Combat Air System, or FCAS.
And, of course, it is fundamentally important that they be interoperable with our allies because we’re unlikely to undertake operations on our own. Many have bought the F-35, and so interoperability with this aircraft is vital. We talk about this issue air force to air force, procurement agency to procurement agency, in seminars, conferences and private meetings, but no technical discussions as to how to achieve this have yet started in NATO.
We can’t end up with a two-pronged alliance: an F-35 one and another. The arrival of the F-35 has somewhat upset the interoperability we’d acquired with all the previous aircraft, so we have to quickly find the capacity to be totally interoperable with it.
There is confusion regarding FCAS, given that two different projects, one with the U.K. and one with Germany, both bear this name. Could you clarify?
The original FCAS, launched in November 2014, was a Franco-British project to develop a stealth RPAS [remotely piloted air system]. There was a divergence of views as to how we should proceed, and Brexit didn’t help. So FCAS has now become FCAS-DP — for demonstration program — and it’s basically developing technological bricks.
The British have launched the Tempest program for a stealth fighter. And we have a program with the Germans, which the Spanish are in the process of joining, which is actually called “NGWS within an FCAS.” NGWS stands for “next-generation weapon system,” and our cooperation includes developing a next-generation fighter, remote carriers and some weapons.
NGWS is part of a French FCAS, which, remember, means Future Combat Air System, so it’s a global system that includes the Rafale — which we’ll have until 2060/2070 — our AWACS [airborne warning and control system], the EuroMale RPAS, and the successor of the Transall Gabriel, which is called CUGE [charge utile guerre électronique, or useful electronic warfare payload], a very ugly name, but we’re thinking of nicknaming it Archangel. It will be a strategic, intelligence-gathering system based on a business-type aircraft.
NGWS is also part of a German FCAS which will include the Typhoon, for example. And the Spanish FCAS will include the F-18 and the Typhoon.
So when the NGWS is ready, in about 2040, it will have to be able to work in cooperation with all these legacy systems.
But isn’t this the same path taken 35 years ago, which ended up with two, competing European fighter aircraft: the Eurofighter Typhoon with the U.K., Germany, Italy and Spain, and the Rafale, which France developed on its own?
At this stage, it seems to be the case. We will see how Tempest develops, how NGWS develops. Today, two programs have been launched, but it’s not too late for them to converge.
Isn’t cooperation with Germany hindered by that government’s ban on export licenses for military equipment that contains German components?
It’s not a blocking factor for our bilateral projects. I’m not saying there aren’t any discussions, but it’s not blocking. It’s part of the overall discussions. We’re not talking about exporting NGWS, so it’s not an element of confrontation, but it’s a more global discussion on Franco-German exports. But it’s obvious that if the NGWS is not exportable, it will make things complicated.
How important is stealth for the NGWS, given the increased sophistication of sensors?
We are looking at various concepts, and within this we’re varying a number of parameters and stealth is among them. I can’t tell you how stealthy the future aircraft will be because we haven’t decided on a concept yet. The aircraft will probably be somewhat stealthy, but what we do already know is that hyper-stealth is not a solution because, as you said, passive radars and other sensors are being developed by our enemies. It’s by confronting the different concepts with future threats that we’ll be able to decide.
So right now we’re spending quite a bit of time on the concept to decide what overall characteristics the next-generation fighter should have, how it would interact with the remote carriers, which could carry lethal and nonlethal weapons, to have an efficient overall system that will allow us to gain the upper hand over our enemies.
Who are these enemies? At the end of the Cold War, many Western nations assumed that state-on-state warfare was unlikely and concentrated on fighting terrorism. But the wind seems to be turning again, with NATO and others clearly pointing their fingers at Russia and China.
Daesh, or similar organizations under different names, will be around for years and years to come. But that enemy is not so dangerous. I have a classification system: the most likely enemy and the most dangerous enemy. In the first category I’d put terrorist organizations or middling powers or nonstate organizations equipped with materiel they’ve picked up in abandoned depots and places where there is not much governance. We need to know how to deal with this enemy.
But we must also know how to deal with the most dangerous — that is, the potential adversaries you mentioned. It’s not necessarily a direct confrontation with those countries but with their clients who’ve bought their military equipment. We have to find the right balance because if we concentrate only on the most dangerous, then we’ll have a military tool which is extremely sophisticated to counter a threat — which fortunately we are not terribly likely to meet — but too expensive to use in fighting Daesh. We won’t use a hyper-stealthy aircraft, such as the B-2, to go and hit Daesh. We have to balance cost and efficiency, which is important in a democracy.
If the U.K. leaves the European Union, how will this affect the strong bilateral ties between the French and British air forces?
I don’t think it will have an effect on our excellent bilateral relations because we are the same size, have the same capacities, similar military logic, i.e., we are capable of deploying operationally, of lasting on theater. And overall we are very similar, militarily speaking.
We are present in the same regions, so we have very strong military bilateral relations, and it’s not because the U.K. may leave the European Union that that will change. My personal point of view is that leaving the European Union isn’t leaving Europe. Their interests are in Europe, the stability of Europe is important for them, too. When we’ll have to undertake another operation on the outskirts of Europe, I don’t think they’ll turn around and say: “It’s not our concern, we’ve Brexited.” And in any case they’ll remain in NATO, which even today is the forum where we exchange the most.
You are also setting up close operational ties with Germany.
Yes, a joint C-130J squadron, which doesn’t have a name yet, will be officially created by the summer of 2021. It will have 10 aircraft — four French and six German — and be based in Evreux in Normandy. It will be the first time we’ve attained such a level of integration, which means there will be French and German personnel in the cockpit and in the hold. The first Germans will be arriving this summer to start all the necessary preparations. And we’ll all speak English to start with but hopefully French and German in the future.
How has the A400M changed your operations?
It’s revolutionized military air transport. It has extraordinary capacities. We are still learning how to use it, and [it is now mature enough where] we consider it for certain missions [when it would benefit] the special forces. Its ability to fly high, fast and far means we can undertake certain operations which we couldn’t with the C-130, notably to undertake operations straight from France rather than have to pre-position. Today we have the capacity to operate the same aircraft for more than 30 days on a theater without it going into a hangar every night, which is not obvious in terms of logistics, maintenance, etc.
When will the French Air Force get heavy helicopters?
It’s not budgeted for in the current military program law, but it’s a subject we bring up regularly because it would allow us to drop men and materiel deep behind enemy lines, so it’s a capacity we’re interested in. For the moment we make do with the Caracal, but its payload capacity is a bit smaller. We’ll bring the subject back to the table in 2021 when the military program law comes up for new discussion.
The special forces want this capacity, and the most obvious solution right now is based on U.S. products, although if Airbus Helicopters comes up with an offer then we’d look at that. The Germans have a pressing need for this type of helicopter, and if ever we got some, too, then we could create a joint squadron, a mirror of the one we’re setting up in Evreux, but this time in Germany. But nothing is on the cards.
Christina Mackenzie was the France correspondent for Defense News.