N ° 10 Top2021: What are the strengths and weaknesses of the Air and Space Force?

Article from November 25, 2021, N ° 10 of the TOP 2021 with 27.000 unique reads

During the night of April 13 to 14, 2017, 5 Rafale planes from the Saint-Dizier base escorted by 4 Mirage-2000-5, 2 Awacs planes and 6 KC-135 tanker planes, carried out a 10 hour and 7000 km raid to strike and destroy, using the 2 SCALP cruise missiles carried by each of the Rafale, the Syrian chemical installations used by the regime of President Bashar El Assad, as part of a tripartite coalition bringing together the United States, the Great -Brittany and France. Despite the strong Syrian air defenses in place, all the targets targeted by the coalition strikes in response to the chemical attack in Douma on April 7, which killed an estimated 50 to 150 people, were completely destroyed. . This operation, called Hamilton on the French side, is just one example of the advanced capabilities available to the Air and Space Army today, undoubtedly one of the most efficient and seasoned in Europe, but also on the planet.

However, despite this undeniable technicality, and aircraft among the most efficient in service, the French Air Force has not been spared any more than the Army and the National Navy by reforms and budgetary restrictions having sometimes severely damaged its operational potential. While the hypothesis of having to confront, in the increasingly near future, massive and efficient air forces and integrated anti-air defenses continues to grow, what are, today as well as in the next decade? come, the assets of this air force? but also what are its weaknesses, and to what extent they can reduce its effectiveness, which is nevertheless decisive for all the French armies, and for the security of the country?

A powerful and homogeneous air force undergoing transformation

Of the three French armies, the Air Force, which became the Air and Space Army in 2020, is probably the one that has been the best preserved from budgetary restrictions and format reforms over the past 25 years. Due to its dimension of a technological army, it was less impacted than the Army of the professionalization of the French armies. In addition, it manages to sanctuary, not without difficulty and many tussles with the political authorities of the country, certain key programs for its modernization in these times of budget scarcity on the basis of "peace benefits", such as the plane of Combat Rafale, the A400M strategic transport aircraft, or the'' A330 MRTT Phoenix Tanker Aircraft, so as to continue its modernization including during the difficult years from 2005 to 2015 which caused so much damage to the French armies. In fact, today, the French Air Force and Space has a fighter fleet of 210 aircraft including 102 Rafale B and C planes, alongside a transport fleet of 70 aircraft including 18 A400Ms, 17 in-flight refueling planes including 6 A330 MRTTs, 4 E-3F Awacs and more than 70 helicopters including 10 H225M Caracals dedicated to special operations and rescue missions. It also operates twenty detection and communication satellites, a dozen MALE Reaper drones, a hundred training aircraft and thirty heavy transport and liaison aircraft, for a total of 580 combat aircraft to which In addition, there are some 10 SAMP / T Mamba long-range anti-aircraft defense batteries and the 12 Crotale NG close defense batteries.

The Rafale is today one of the best combat aircraft of the moment, offering versatility and advanced performance to the Air and Space Force, particularly in terms of engagement in a contested environment.

Undoubtedly, the Air Force outperforms other European air forces in many ways, all the more so when it operates in conjunction with naval aeronautics and its 200 aircraft. It also has rare long or even very long distance power projection capabilities, and a high level of experience and technical expertise of its some 40.000 airmen and officers. Therefore, like all Western air forces, the Air and Space Army not only represents the initial and final armed wing of French military policy, participating in particular with two fighter squadrons. to the deterrence mission, but it also carries most of the firepower of the French armed forces, protecting and acting for the benefit of land and naval units engaged in combat. Finally, this army is engaged in a vast modernization effort, which will lead it by the end of the decade to align, among others, 185 Rafale aircraft to the F4 and F5 standard, 15 A330 MRTT refueling aircraft, or even 50 aircraft. A400M strategic transport systems, but also new aircraft such as the 3 Falcon Archangel Intelligence and Wiretapping, or the H160M Guépard helicopters from the HIL program, each of them providing unprecedented capabilities and performance in terms of combat, reach, transport capacity and cooperative engagement.

Critical capacity dead ends

However, this table thus presented does not take into account the critical capability failures that the Air Force is facing today, or will face in the near future. Thus, and as we had already discussed, it no longer has, for about twenty years, specific capacities to eliminate or neutralize the increasingly efficient enemy anti-aircraft defenses to which its aircraft and its pilots could soon be. find confront. Admittedly, the Rafale has an excellent self-protection system, the SPECTRA, which has been shown to be effective against certain anti-aircraft defenses, and even against modern airborne radars. But the Rafale, no more than the Mirage 2000, has to date no extended electronic warfare capability capable of protecting airspace, and no more munition specially designed to eliminate the adversary's radars, commonly called munition. anti-radiation.

Rafale in air defense configuration, with 2 Meteor long-range missiles, 2 MICA EM medium-range missiles, and 2 MICA IR missiles for self-defense and spinning combat

However, the absence of suppression capabilities, as designated, considerably reduces the operational capacities of the Air Force as a whole, which can therefore only deploy, in contested airspace, its Rafale aircraft. , the only ones likely to be able to protect themselves against modern anti-aircraft defenses, and only to a certain extent. Neither the Mirage 2000s, which nevertheless represent half of the fighter fleet, nor the support planes, such as the Awacs or the tanker planes, can then accompany the French planes, significantly reducing their effectiveness, and therefore the support and protection they can provide to units engaged on land or on the surface. At best, the French Rafales can use SCALP EG cruise missiles with a range of over 250 km, in an attempt to neutralize threats without exposing themselves too much. But the Air Force ordered the modernization of only 100 of these missiles, knowing that 9 had to be used to destroy the main Syrian building during Operation Hamilton.

In addition to this critical failure with no solution planned in the short or medium term, at least until the arrival of the first Remote Carriers of the SCAF program planned post 2030, the Air and Space Force will also find itself in the next 6 years in a situation of capacity deprivation concerning electronic intelligence, between the announced withdrawal of the venerable C-160 Gabriel and the entry into operational service of the first Archangels. However, detecting, recording and analyzing the electromagnetic information of a potential adversary constitute the essential preliminary steps for carrying out air operations in a contested environment, in particular for configuring self-protection systems such as SPECTRA. In these areas, and as we had already discussed, France would have every interest in developing a version specializing in electronic warfare and the removal of anti-aircraft defenses from its Rafale, especially since, apart from Boeing's EA-18G Growler, the West has no such offer, while China and Russia are developing advanced solutions in this area.

The Air Force lost its last electronic warfare squadron and suppressed air defenses in 1997

In addition, the AAE currently has only a limited number of American-made MALE Reaper drones, but no combat drone capable of operating in a contested environment, even though the national industry had , at the beginning of the 2010s, a notable advance in this field with the NEURON program. However, when it comes to intervening in contested airspace and in a high intensity situation, traditional MALE drones like the Reaper, but also like the future Euromale, would be very exposed and vulnerable, and would prove to be easy targets for anti-aircraft defense or even enemy hunting. This is why Russia is now developing the S-70 Okhtinik B, and China is developing the Sharp Sword series, stealth combat drones designed for this type of mission. Here again, the AAE would greatly benefit from having a few dozen of these drones, potentially derived from the NEURON program, pending the entry into service of the first Remote carriers in 2030, if the SCAF program runs its course. suitably, and that the need does not arise beforehand.

The last area that has been the subject of unfavorable arbitration is the training of pilots, and in particular of fighter pilots, with the replacement of the Epsilon / Alpha Jet pair by the PC-21 Pilatus with turboprop. Admittedly, the Swiss aircraft offers an avionics environment much closer to that of the Rafale than the epsilon and Alpha Jet dating from the 70s and 80s proposed. However, these aircraft are few in number (24 to date), and especially , do not offer performance comparable to that of weapon planes, especially in terms of speed, as the Alpha Jet can. If several other air forces have chosen the PC-21 for the training of their pilots, it is clear that the first rank air forces, China, Russia and the United States in the lead, favor the use of aircraft equipped with turbojets. and performance close to that of weapon planes, like the Chinese L-10 or L-15, the Russian Yak-130 and the American T-7A.

A trompe l'oeil format

But the greatest weakness of the Air Force and Space, like the Army and the Navy, undoubtedly remains its format which has been strongly constrained in recent years. Thus, the fighter fleet targeted by the White Paper 2013 and confirmed by the Strategic Review of 2017, is limited to 185 combat aircraft, half of what it was still in 2005, a very insufficient number even to respond to the current operational pressure it faces today, this largely explains the difficulties encountered in terms of availability of devices in recent years. In addition, and until the end of the decade, half of the French fighter fleet will be made up of mirage 2000D and mirage 2000-5, leaving only 110 to 140 Rafale capable of operating in a high environment. Intensity, at least for strike missions. However, out of this hundred aircraft, a third is on average in maintenance, and about twenty aircraft are dedicated to the deterrence mission, leaving, effectively, only about sixty Rafales ready for combat, to which he devices should be removed in outdoor operation.

The arrival of the A400M within the Air Force and Space has considerably increased the power projection capabilities of this air force.

To support a division-sized force army in combat, as defined by General Schill, Chief of Staff of the Army, it is essential to align 90 to 120 aircraft of combat capable of fulfilling these missions, and not the fifty or so Rafales that the AAE will be able, at best by the end of the decade, to devote to such an operation. Objectively, therefore, between 90 and 120 so-called “high intensity” fighters will be missing, in the Air and Space Army format. to fully ensure its missions by the end of the decade. Under these conditions, the hypothesis of recovering around fifty Emirati Mirage 2000-9 if Abu Dabi were to order the 60 Rafale planned, could constitute an unexpected transition solution for the EEA to meet this need, especially since they were deprived of 24 Rafale sold second-hand to Greece and Croatia. It is also becoming urgent to plan the replacement of the 4 E-3F Awacs in service, which flirt with 40 years of service, and which today prove to be particularly vulnerable to very long range ground-to-air and air-to-air systems such as the Russian R-37M and S400, or the Chinese PL-15.

In other areas, on the other hand, the sizing targeted by the AAE seems consistent with the needs, even if the fighter fleet were to be reinforced. This is the case of the 15 in-flight refueling A330 MRTTs, which will make the AAE the 4th best endowed air force in this field on the planet, or even the 50 A400Ms which should be supported by a new tactical transport device. intended to replace the C-160s and eventually the CN-235s, a program launched on November 16 as part of PESCO. The efforts made in the space sector, in particular the launch of the 3 electromagnetic intelligence satellites of the CERES constellation a few days ago, also point to a dimensioning adapted to the ambitions and needs of France and its Armies.

If the primary mission of the A330 MRTT phoenix is ​​in-flight refueling, this extremely versatile device was also used at the height of the first COVID wave to move patients on ventilators to less stressed hospitals.

The fact remains that, in order to increase the fighter fleet to the level of the real needs imposed by operational pressure and the evolution of threats, as well as to provide it with the capabilities it lacks, as in the field of electronic warfare, the elimination of defenses and combat drones, the AAE should have an increased annual equipment budget of € 2,5 billion, to which must be added the maintenance costs, those of the new infrastructures to accommodate these units, as well as the 10.000 airmen and officers essential to implement them, ie an additional envelope of € 4 billion. While the amount may seem significant, it should be weighed against the preponderant role that the AAE plays today in all French military operations, as well as that which it would be called upon to play to support the land and naval forces. in case of conflict.


As we can see, if the Air and Space Army managed to maintain leading operational capabilities through the years of scarcity after the Cold War, it could only do so through a competition of favorable industrial circumstance, and not without having to abandon certain critical aspects of its own capacities. In addition, its format is currently very insufficient, if only to meet immediate needs, even very worrying when considering high intensity commitments spread over time. In addition, of the 3 French armies, the AAE is undoubtedly the one which acts the most in favor of the other two, and whose capacities directly and massively influence those of the other forces. A situation which is not specific to France, the Chief of Staff of the British Armies having, two years ago, estimated that 2% of NATO's firepower came from his force. air force of the Alliance.

In these conditions, it appears urgent and essential to bring consistency not only to the means that the Air and Space Force must have to meet its present and future operational commitments, but also to guarantee the Army, as in the National Navy, that its devices will be there in time, in time, and in number, when the time comes in the event of high intensity engagement. Because if the air force, on its own, cannot hold the ground, it is today it, moreover in the architecture of Western forces, which allows the land and naval units to do so, in particular in the face of opponents with superior means in number, even in firepower.

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