The French Air Force and FCAS: Perspectives from the International Fighter Conference 2018


By Robbin Laird

The French Air Force (FAF) is one of the most active Air Forces in the Western World.

They have had significant demand on the force and have been stressed through a continual flow of operations.

They are a nuclear-armed Air Force and their focus on Quick Reaction Alerts revolves around the nuclear mission.

Our partner provides the most comprehensive coverage of the FAF of any non-governmental source and the editor has been on several missions with the FAF over the years, in Africa and the Middle East.

We have a lot of respect for the FAF and its challenges.

A good sense of how the FAF operates was provided in the editor of Operationanels in her piece on the Syrian strikes and the QRA focus of the FAF.

In this piece published by Breaking Defense, where she is a regular contributor, Murielle Delaportete highlighted the years of cooperation and collaboration between the FAF and Allied Air Forces in being able to do the Syrian strike:

Building the trust necessary so that a French mission commander based in the Mediterranean could direct part of the strikes in an autonomous manner did not just happen overnight.

This is the result of years and years of flying and sailing together and operating together whether in Afghanistan or over Libya or in Niger.

It is also the result of the joint planning done in 2013, albeit in a very, very different threat environment.

So when the French Air Force Generals spoke at the International Fighter Conference 2018 about Future Combat Air Systems, they spoke from the perspective of operational realities, and real world focus on modernization of airpower and within their experience as a coalition air force as well.

The two FAF Generals who spoke highlighted the importance of modernization and upgrades as the force evolved over time to the point whereby a new fighter could be fielded by the 2040s.

The new fighter would then become a key piece in the overall evolving air combat integrated force.

One of the two generals specifically discussed that with the F-35 coming in significant numbers to Europe, this meant that working integration of the FAF with the F-35 was an important task as the FAF and German Air Forces (and the  Spanish) as the FCAS appraoch was being shaped and worked.

A similar perspective was highlighted during my interactions over the past few years with the European Air Group, of which the FAF is a key member.

The EAG refers to this as 4thand 5thgeneration integration and during my visit to the EAG earlier this year during my visit, Air Commodore Adang highlighted how saw the challenge:

If I look at European air forces, current plans, when you total the projected number of F-35s in about ten years’ time, say 2028, and you compare it to the number of 4th gen fighters that will be used at that time still, then you’re looking at about 20% fifth gen systems and 80% 4th gen systems, not including any F-35 or F-22 US forces.

“And the total number that makes up that 20% of F-35s is too small to create the total effects that you need in a major combined air operation.

“You need the missile carrying capabilities and other attributes of the 4th gen fighters to ultimately be successful. So it’s only through a combination of 4th and 5th gen that we can be successful in future air operations.

“And this is the trick.”

Working such integration is a key task facing the FAF along with any participants in FCAS and will undoubtedly be part of the roll out of the connectivity technologies shaped for FCAS.

New Generation Weapons System Within a Future Combat Air System

The first presentation was entitled “New Generation Weapons System Within a Future Combat Air System” and focused upon the environment in which the evolving capabilities would need to operate and to prevail.

The FCAS was launched by the German and French declaration in July 2017 and will see the first contracts generated early next year.

The goal of the effort is to be able to “guarantee” air and space superiority and the FCAS is envisaged as delivering this capability.

As a ‘system of systems’ approach, the notion is that the system will deliver the goal of air superiority; not any specific platform.

As a result, the focus will be upon the build of new platforms in terms of how they connect and work together.

The focus is upon the platform team to be built to augment existing legacy assets which will be undergoing continuous modernization, like the Rafale fighter which will go through significant upgrades through its service life beyond the projected introduction of the FCAS fighter in the 2040s.

This means the challenge of connecting the force becomes a crucial choke point to or focus of attention for effective implementation of the FCAS approach.

In the first presentation, this was clearly recognized.

Connectivity from the perspective of the FCAS approach was seen to encompass: the network, data storage and management (the combat cloud), interoperability for combined and joint ops; and interactions between the FCAS and legacy systems.

To achieve this is challenging on several levels.

Standing up the system requires working a number of issues: standardization in waveforms, communication systems, data infrastructure (cloud architecture, aircraft avionic architecture, and digital services (SAAS – Software as a Service).

Also important are the challenges of security, data protection and cyber intrusions as well as working the relationship between autonomy and collaboration among the platforms in the FCAS ‘system of systems’.

Even though the FCAS is being launched as a German-French program, the first speaker noted that the French would like the fighter to be carrier capable, something which is not necessary for the Germans.

And finally, the first speaker underscored the requirement to be able to shape new processes to adapt swiftly to the changing environment.

And he illustrated this challenge by highlighting the need to have effective and rapid interaction between the customers and operational capabilities, on the one hand, and industry and the development of technologies, on the other hand.

The graphic illustrated a major opportunity and challenge within the FCAS approach: how to get the procurement agencies to work more effectively with the combat force and in turn how to get better cultural integration across industry to support the transformation of governmental processes?

This is no easy set of tasks.

Building a Global Combat Air Systems (GCAS), Path to the FCAS

The second speaker entitled his presentation “Building a Global Combat Air Systems (GCAS), Path to the FCAS.”

In his presentation, this speaker provided an overview of the objectives, but spent most of his time focused on the key tasks necessary to get to the FCAS end point.

A number of air operational requirements were identified in the presentation as the launch point for the FCAS discussion.

  • Air superiority in a contested environment;
  • Height, speed, reach, payload and responsiveness of the system and the platforms to achieve air superiority;
  • More persistence
  • More weapons and larger range of effects
  • Better survivability (which could be collectively achieved rather than focusing on a particular platform)
  • Right mix of autonomous (i.e. onboard) versus collective capabilities
  • Connected and able to collect and share data
  • Data processing depending on needs and position in the system
  • European sovereignty
  • National caveats (national clouds and specific capabilities if needed)
  • Affordability versus numbers.

In his presentation he provided an overview of how he saw the FAF combat fleet evolution in light of the FCAS objective.

The first phase was from 2020-2030 where the focus was upon Rafale and Mirage modernization. 

The fleet would be stabilized at 225 fighter aircraft for the FAF and the Navy.

Rafale upgrades would be provided to enhance connectivity, survivability, and new sensors and weapons.

The second phase from 2030-2040 would see the retirement of the Mirages and the FAF would have a Rafale fleet only. 

In this period, modernization would continued with regard to new sensors, weapons and networking capabilities.

The Rafale would evolve (F-5.MLU) to continue its nuclear delivery role as well.

The third phase would be from 2040-2050 with the fielding of a new generation system. 

FCAS/NGF initial deliveries would be made to start the Rafale replacement process.

Rafales would continue in service until 2060-ish.

The rest of the presentation focused on the air connectivity challenges and the need to deal with legacy approaches and to expand the envelope of working digital integration.

And at the heart of the FCAS is clearly what Generals Hostage and Deptula identified several years ago as the combat cloud. Information superiority is to be enabled through the combat cloud.

This means that much focus of research, development and combat improvement in the FAF over the next decade and beyond must be in this area, and the challenge identified in the first briefing or in the EAG’s work becomes a key one – working F-35 integration with the legacy fleet.

And such efforts, by definition become part of the FCAS as well.

The second speaker highlighted how he saw the GCAS network evolving and laying the foundation for FCAS: “Given the complexity and program cycles, we need to have an incremental approach.”

And here he provided what he identified as a connectivity roadmap.

From 2018 through 2025, he envisaged the creation of the network which is connected but limited in its full impact.

From 2025-through 2030 he saw a catch up imperative where a digitally ready FCAS system was being shaped.

From 2030 through 2040, a system architecture by design would be crafted and put in place as the laydown for the new fighter in the 2040s.

Put in other words, modernization of the legacy air combat fleet and the shaping of an evolving incremental network would be subsumed in a new architecture and a new fighter by the 2040s.

He concluded his presentation by identifying what he saw as the risks and opportunities of the FCAS approach with GCAS as the development and implementation path.

The key risks identified were as follows: an interoperability gap (4thand 5thgen); not being able to define international norms; lose a strong and capable aeronautical European industry; and to lose time.

The opportunities were identified as follows: operational gains; share/promote the connectivity concept at the joint force, industrial and allied levels and to develop cooperation.

In other words, for the FAF, it is about evolving the current fleet and modernizing the Rafale to remain a centerpiece of FAF airpower, but to do so in a way that provides building blocks to the FCAS and the Rafale replacement fighter.

And to do so, in the context of evolving airpower modernization in Europe and beyond by non-FCAS airpower players, including adversaries for that matter.

The featured graphic shows an Naval Group / Dassault Aviation image showing the NGF (next generation fighter) and a UCAS being launched from a conceptual aircraft carrier.

The International Fighter Conference is held by IQPC and next year’s conference will be also held in Berlin from November 12-14 2019 and if this year’s conference is anything to go by, it is highly recommended that persons interested in the evolution of the air combat force attend.

Although the focus is upon fighters, given the evolution combat, the scope is rapidly expanding to a discussion of operations in the integrated battlespace.