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With FCAS, French Air Force’s Renaissance Begins

Posted by Murielle Delaporte on

PARIS: As the Paris Air Show gets ready to open its gates next week, the French Air Force is pressing ahead with  massive and long-awaited modernization plan. Key among the efforts now moving ahead are the Future Air Combat System (FCAS), upgraded command and communications (C2) networks, and the new Phenix A330 MRTT tanker aircraft.

After decades of budget cuts and base closures, French defense spending has evened out — allowing the Air Force new breathing room and sparking new confidence that the service will be able to meet its goals (set back in 2008) for 21st Century power projection.

Political Boost

The Future Air Combat System (FCAS)  is at the center of France’s Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Philippe Lavigne vision. Despite having lost full British cooperation due to Brexit earlier this year, hopes are soaring under President Emmanuel Macron for the stealth fighter to take off as a true European project that transcends its Franco-German foundation. The French government is strongly supporting the program, which includes not just a sixth-generation fighter to replace the French Rafale and German Eurofighter, but also UAV ‘swarms’ and upgraded missiles interconnected via a sophisticated command and control (C2) network. (Editor’s note: That all sounds similar to what little we’ve heard about America’s B-21.)

Since the letter of intent signed last year by the French and German ministers of defense, Florence Parly and Ursula von der Leyen, several milestones have been hit. The highlight was the $74 million contract to Dassault and Airbus signed in February for a two-year study to conceptualize the global architecture. This was accompanied by an agreement between France’s Safran Aircraft Engines and Germany’s MTU Aero Engines to design a common engine.

Given interest in Lockheed Martin’s F-35 fighter jet among European partners, the fact that Spain is now interested in joining FCAS is good news for the project, and not only because of the political dynamic it embodies. With a minimum of three partners, funding for parts of the long-term project can be triggered under the European Defence Fund that underwrites joint defense industrial projects. Spain joined the program during a NATO meeting in Brussels Feb. 14, and the FCAS will replace its fleet of Eurofighters.

Of course, we all know that with European cooperation the devil lies in the details, and only the future will tell what actually results from the current political good will — especially given recent European elections and a slow economy. (Populists and nationalists increased their presence in the European Parliament following elections on May 26.)

However, no matter what happens over the course of the next 20 years as FCAS is being completed, Lavigne’s ‘Flight Planning’ strategy now is crystal clear, and is on its way to leveraging a new level of capability for the Air Force. 

Changing Scale

Like other advanced Air Forces in the world, this ‘change of scale’ in the combat power of the French Air Force is being enabled by various individual ‘bricks’ that interlock to create a whole that is more than the sum of its parts. Space resiliency is a sine qua non condition for such a system-of-systems to operate. Connecting the next-generation fighter, first-line combat and/or jamming UAVs, missiles, and various combinations of tankers and transport aircraft, as well as ground- and sea-based assets requires space-based communications, C2 and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) that are largely autonomous. And satellite systems must be backed up by non-space based means to ensure redundancy.

The other crucial ‘brick’ in the French Air Force’s renaissance is the new-generation Phénix A330 MRTT tanker, called by some French officers the ‘Rolls Royce of all tankers.’ Having been tested by the French Air Force during various exercises (such as Pitch Black 2018 held in Darwin), as well as on the battlefield in the Middle-East with the British and Australian Air Forces (and through officers exchange programs), the new tanker-transport is now part of the 31st EARTS Strategic Air Refueling and Transport Wing at Istres Air Base. The aircraft, which can do both refueling and passenger transport missions, flew its first war mission to an air base in Jordan in March. The French Air Force is expected to acquire 15 Phénix aircraft by 2028.

The new tanker-transport, which sports an advanced mission system, has been designed within the context of the French airborne nuclear component modernization, as the French tanker force is traditionally dedicated to the Strategic Air Forces Command (CFAS, for “Commandement des forces aériennes stratégiques”).

But with the new tanker comes far more than a mere replacement for the 40-year-old fleet of American-made C-135s. It actually kills three birds – or should we say three enemy targets —  with one stone. It is meant to replace the French strategic transport fleet of A310 and A340 planes; the C-135 fleet; and, thanks to the cockpit configuration and its capability for hyper-connectivity, it can accommodate not only ISR experts (transferring in France from former Mirage F1/Rafale reconnaissance aircrews) and provide a true C2 capability.

The delivery of the third Phénix is expected early next year, with the new Standard 2 configuration that  includes the L16-JRE (Link 16 Joint Range Extension) advanced data link, will constitute a first step towards the high connectivity envisioned by the French Air Force under the FCAS program. The simultaneous arrival of long-awaited tactical capacities on the new generation air assets, such as the A400M Atlas turbo-prop transport aircraft, multiplies combat options for the French Air Force.

As the commander of the 31st Squadron, Lt. Col. Sébastien, explained in an interview: “With the current developments under way (such as HD video streaming and advanced satellite communications), new ConOps can be imagined by playing for instance on the complementarity of the A400M as a ‘tactical tanker’ and the MRTT as a ‘strategic tanker.’ …  But these new capabilities can also allow the President to be directly in contact with the pilots during a long-range, long-endurance raid.”

Such an evolution – whether for an expeditionary raid (such as in Mali in 2013 or Syria last year) or in a nuclear attack mission – gives France’s leadership the option of reversibility, which is in itself a game-changer in terms of the credibility of France’s deterrent capabilities.

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