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The Paris Air Show and Military Aviation’s Future

Posted by Robbin Laird on

Paris Air Show static displays

Paris Air Show static displays

The Paris Air Show is dominated by the commercial sector, which in terms of market and money is clearly more important than the defense aerospace market. But the simple size of that civilian market is not the most critical consideration. As the aerospace world meets in Paris in 2015, national survival is becoming a more pressing concern so the military market remains crucial.

The commercial market is also not the most innovative part of the aviation business; military technology still plays a central role in innovation. This can be seen in many areas, such as materials, propulsion, avionics, electronics, and security.

Innovations in the military sector clearly influence the commercial side as well. For example, in a recent visit to the Boeing V-22 Osprey plant near Philadelphia, Tom Jablonski, head of the Composites Center of Excellence (CCOE) there, said work done by both sides is crucial for Boeing.

Today, military aviation is in the throes of fundamental transformation, a transformation which is a combination of the lessons learned from the past decade and the introduction of new platforms, systems and technologies in this decade and the preparation for the decade after.

The land wars of the past decade have helped drive fundamental changes in military aviation. Airlifters have become core elements in the battlespace with precision air drops and other capabilities becoming a key part of “ground operations.” The introduction of the Harvest Hawk variant of the C-130J has introduced the notion that an airlifter can become a mother ship and a weapons carrier for ground forces. Tanking has become a key infrastructure for operations, at sea, on the ground or in the air. The Osprey has transformed forever the speed and range for within which ground forces can operate.  Drones have become a key part of the battlespace and the effort to work fusion of information cross-platform clearly now includes both manned and remotely piloted assets.  The ability through Rover to call in fires from sea or air to support ground forces has changed forever the notion of integrated fires.

F-35A climbing at Eglin Air Force Base


This decade will see fundamental transformations as the F-35 becomes a key element of US and allied airpower. The F-35 is at the heart of change for a very simple reason – it is a revolutionary platform, and when considered in terms of its fleet impact even more so. The F-35 Lightning II has a revolutionary sensor fusion cockpit that makes it effective in air-to-air, air-to-ground and electronic warfare. Allied and U.S. combat pilots will evolve and share new tactics and training, and over time this will drive changes that leaders must make for effective command and control to fight future battles.

The F-35 is part of an overall transformation process. For the Aussies, their Plan Jericho is being put in place to shape what the Australian Minister of Defence refers to as the transition to “fifth generation warfare.” He made this comment to the surface navy and had in mind the intersection between airpower – notably the F-35 – and the surface navy in providing both force protection and a broader capability to tap into the surface navy’s missile launching capability. For the Brits, the F-35 is part of the coming of the new UK large deck carrier, HMS Queen Elizabeth, which is part of the transformation of the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force.

The F-35 is not alone as part of the transformation of airpower. New weapons – hypersonics included – are entering the battlespace. New ways of targeting from the air to guide naval, ground and air strikes will evolve. New tankers and airlifters will become key staples for US and allied air forces. In the coalition operations against ISIL, four allied air forces are flying the new Airbus tanker in support of US and coalition air assets.

And there’s the European cargo plane, the A400M. In spite of the recent tragic crash this aircraft is redefining how European air forces are addressing the role of lift within their overall approach to operations.

“One of the key advantages of the A400M will be that we can fly helicopters directly from France to the troops, which we can not do right now. We cannot ship the helos directly back to France, currently, with our own assets. With the A400M we will be able to do so,” the commander of the first operational A400M squadron, Lt. Col. Paillard, noted.

A400M using flares


In other words, the A400M will provide a strategic capability for France, whereby interventions can occur directly from France without having to preposition forces in theater.

With regard to the fighter market, there is substantial business to be generated modernizing legacy fighters to work with the F-35. A good example is the Eurofighter. The RAF is undergoing two fighter aircraft transitions at the same time in which the Eurofighter is a key element. On the one hand, the Tornado is being retired and the Typhoon is taking on its missions. On the other hand, the F-35B is coming to the fleet and will be working with Typhoon for the period ahead.

These are three very different aircraft built in different periods of aviation history. The venerable Tornado has seen a significant evolution over its time; from its initial use as an ultra low-level nuclear and unguided weapons bomber to an ISR-enabled precision strike and close-support aircraft. The Typhoon entered the RAF more than a decade ago as a classic air superiority fighter, but is now being asked to expand its effects and to assume the Tornado missions. The F-35B is entering the fleet as the Typhoon is making this transition.

This will mean that the RAF will be managing a double transition – Typhoon becoming multi-role and the F-35B operating off of land or ships to provide the fifth generation capability for the evolving RAF strike force.

The drone market is facing a significant transition as well.  Drones, or RPAs as air force aficionados like to call them, are facing fundamental disruptions, rather than straight line progress. Part of the problem is their vulnerability to jamming. Another part of the problem is the coming of directed energy weapons and how effective they are against slow-moving robotic airplanes.

Last month, the defense ministers of Italy, Germany and France signed an agreement for a two-year definition study for a European Medium-Altitude, Long-Endurance UAV which would involve Airbus Defence and Space, Finmeccanica and Dassault Aviation. Hopefully, the focus is not simply on building the son of Predator, but coming up with an innovative approach that takes into account the limitations of current drones.

There is a substantial global fighter market beyond the current mainstream offerings as well. The Gripen is case in point. SAAB is a very innovative company but faces clear problems of market access and size. The sale to Brazil in 2013 could open up opportunities, but Brazil has fallen into political and economic crisis which could reduce the positive impact of the Brazilian decision to buy Gripens.


The “Gripen Model” is worth noting. First, the aircraft has been designed from the ground up to be supportable. Second, the Gripen has been shaped in an environment in the post-Cold War period where interoperability with NATO and an ability to work in multinational coalitions and conditions has been highlighted. Sweden has emphasized Gripen as a fully interoperable aircraft. Third, the Gripen has been designed from the beginning to be a very flexible aircraft. Fourth, the aircraft is designed to work as well in a variety of packages.  Thailand purchased the Gripen and then AEW SAAB aircraft and the ground control suite. Finally, SAAB is owned by a large Swedish industrial group and this group is very good at making offset investments. Clearly, offsets are important part of this deal as well.

The Gripen case highlights that the market for manned fighters is much broader than Eurofighters or F-35s, and nature abhors a vacuum.

Then there is the question of the long-range strike market. For the US, the B-3 (Long Range Strike Bomber) will be inserted into the next decade of innovation. European aerospace clearly could shape a longer range strike/ISR/C2 asset which could provide the range and persistence to complement a shorter-range force. With the weapons revolution underway, innovations in command and control, the need to replace AWACs, and the entry of the A330/MRTT and the A400M into the market, it is clear that these platforms or new ones could become the homes for standoff weapons or become the foundation for building an aircraft of interest to Europe, India, Australia and Japan. Whether it is called a medium-range ISR and strike asset is beside the point. Clearly, the US will not be building an airplane in this category; the Russians and Chinese will, and the Europeans could forge a global coalition, which would take imagination and networking as much as money.

The Chinese and the Russians are ramping up their global assertiveness and activity as well. They want to expand their client relationships to sustain and support their global agendas, as well as their aerospace industries. It is quite likely that the Chinese and Russians will build and display aircraft which will be impressive at air shows. As the electronics and fusion of date becomes a key discriminator in operations and won’t not be visible at airshows, engines and turning ratios will be. Here the Russians and Chinese will seek to demonstrate their competitiveness.

Rafale fighter

Rafale fighter

Clearly, both China and Russia will seek Third World sales to augment their aerospace industry. For Russia, India remains a key ally. Yet the recent Rafale deal between France and India may pose a significant threat to that relationship. In April, India decided to buy 36 Rafales directly from the Dassault factory.

By buying 36 aircraft directly through a government-to-government agreement, the Indian Air Force will get combat-ready aircraft much more rapidly than via any other means and at a lower cost. Simply put, one can project the cost of an aircraft coming off of a mature production line; projecting the cost of aircraft not yet coming off of a new production line is alchemy.

Fifteen years have passed since the first Rafale entered service in the French Navy. “We started very small with a fleet of only 10 aircraft up until 2004”, recalls Marie-Astrid Vernier, currently director of military support at Dassault Aviation. She has worked on the Rafale since 1994. The current French Rafale fleet has been built with the delivery of four different tranches of aircraft which have been upgraded over the years into various standards, the latest one being Standard F3R, to be delivered in 2018.

Today’s Rafale F3 has little in common with the very first F1. “Retrofitting the very first planes from a F1 standard to a F3 standard takes far more time than upgrading later-built planes”, explains Capitaine de Vaisseau Sébastien Fabre, formerly in charge of support of the Rafale fleet within the French MoD.

As India flies Rafales and Indian industry works with the French to sustain the aircraft, a new era in Indian military aerospace could open up, one where the Indians may look at the Russian contribution and pause. Such a pause could have significant impact on the global fighter market.

In short, we are facing a decade of significant innovation. The reality of military aviation is that there is always a reactive enemy and the dynamics of change are fluid. And military aviation is so inextricably intertwined with overall defense capabilities, that the success or failures of those forces are the ultimate market indicator.

Robbin Laird, a defense consultant, is a member of the Breaking Defense Board of Contributors and owner of the Second Line of Defense website.

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