Visiting the Paris Air Show, 2019: A Retrospective


By Robbin Laird

The challenge of visiting a large exhibition like the Paris Air Show is a bit like the challenge of visiting the Louvre.  It is so big, and so diverse that unless you focus on some core aspects, the panorama overwhelms you.

You come away with a blur more than enhanced understanding of what is significance to the evolution of the industry and of defense capabilities.

For me, this means making a determination of those areas, which you think might yield the most significant insights in the defense domain.

I ended up focusing on four key aspects of the show, which highlighted what I believe are important ways ahead.

The first was clearly the most dominant at the air show, which was the French response to what they perceive as the threat to their military aerospace business, namely, the growing numbers of F-35s already in Europe, or coming to Europe. Already, the UK, Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands, Norway, Denmark have bought or are operating F-35s, with Finland and Switzerland as prospective customers as well.

Poland has recently announced its decision to join the F-35 global enterprise as well.

This F-35 onslaught as the French see it poses two challenges.

The first is that the French Air Force clearly will fly with and need to integrate with the F-35.

And the modernization of the Rafale along with effort to make the aircraft a software upgradeable aircraft through the F-4 software modernization program is designed to do that in part.

And as an operating force, the main focus of the FAF is clearly upon reshaping the force to operate in a more connected manner akin to what USAF leaders have called the “combat cloud”, and the near term candidates for such integration is clearly the A330MRTT which is known as the Phénix in FAF parlance.

At the Air Show, the French government held a signing ceremony with Spain and Germany to underscore the launch of what they refer to as the Future Combat Air System.

At the show, several European aerospace companies were highlighting their potential contributions, notably SNECMA for engines, MBDA for weapons for the “combat cloud,” with other companies not formally identified as FCAS partners such as Thales indicating their inevitable engagement.

This highlights the second challenge, namely, the need to protect European “sovereignty” and “industry.”

MBDA focus on building weapons for the “combat cloud” highlight the dynamics of change in the missile business. In blunt terms, this means building weapons for fifth generation aircraft, notably, the F-35, as well as legacy aircraft and for any fighter aircraft that will replace Eurofighter or Rafale.

Eric Beranger, PDG de MBDA, Edouard Philippe, Premier Ministre, Guillaume Faury, PDG de Airbus Group , stand MBDA, visite du Premier Ministre
53eme Salon International de l’Aeronautique et de l’Espace

The core companies are identified as Dassault as the lead platform builder with Airbus to play the “systems of systems” role, although how that will play out is not all that clear. The challenge facing the FCAS program is significant as the defense environment is fluid and dynamic and the target date for having a new fighter in the 2040s long after the innovation which fifth generation aircraft are already introducing into Western fleets.

But FCAS is a breakthrough of sorts in any case, as it is clear recognition of the need for a very different level of integration for air systems within a multi-domain operating environment.  This is a very positive step forward, and one, which a leading French defense analyst, Murielle Delaporte, has underscored as a key part of the FAF’s renaissance. And it is the operational evolutions of the FAF, which are the key indicators of transformation, not simply signatures on an FCAS launch document.

A second aspect which I followed at the show was the Sikorsky/Lockheed CH-53K which was the key air platform being highlighted at the air show by the company. The CH-53K is being offered to Germany and Israel and is the new heavy lift helicopter for the USMC.

On June 18, 2019, the President of Sikorsky, Dan Schultz, himself a former CH-53-E pilot, provided an overview brief on the CH-53K and their offering for both Germany and Israel. With regard to international partners, the aircraft was very adjustable to the needs of new partners. It is a digital aircraft with software upgradeability built in, and when I visited the Sikorsky facility in Connecticut last year, I talked with software engineers about the flexibility of adapting software to partner needs.

The offering to Germany provides an F-35 like partnership in which German partners would be providing parts not just to the German CH-53K but to the overall global program. For Germany, the K clearly would be part of how they might adjust flexibility to the strategic shift facing the liberal democracies in dealing with the Russians. For example, Germany needs to rapidly reinforce their Baltic brigade or move forces forward to reinforce Poland in a crisis. Compared to Chinook, the K goes further, faster and brings a significantly greater combat load to the fight rapidly.

And flying with the A400 M or the C-130J, the ability to carry standard pallets means a rapid movement of cargo from an airlifter to the K to move support within an area of interest. And the K is changing as well the meaning of what a support helo really is. It is in an information or C2 asset through the nature of the cockpit and how information can be managed within the cockpit or delivered to the combat soldiers onboard the aircraft.

This means that for Germany, the K is already FCAS enabled, or able to operate in a combat cloud in a way certainly neither the E nor the Chinook can do. In Germany, Sikorsky is partnered with Rheinmetall, a company with demonstrated capability to support ground combat forces, and which is investing in transferring that capability to the helo support domain.

I had a chance to interview Mike Schmidt, head of Aviation Services, Integrated Electronic Systems of Rheinmetall.  He highlighted that Rheinmetall was supporting the project on three levels.

The first level is with regard to simulation and training for pilots and maintainers in Germany. Rheinmetall has a deep history and experience in this area and has supported the German Army for many years in this area. More than a decade ago I flew a Tiger simulator at a Rheinmetall facility, and certainly the simulator worked but I proved not an adept Tiger pilot for sure. My ability to crash the Tiger was probably unprecedented in the program’s history.

The second level is to provide the digital documentation necessary to operate and support a digital aircraft. Here Rheinmetall Technical Publications has a long history of providing for support to the Bundeswehr with regard to technical documentation.

The third level is MRO or maintenance and sustainment.  The company has many years of experience in support to the German Army and has provided innovative performance-based logistics solutions for the Army, notably in the area of military trucks.

Because MoD is looking for innovative solutions, a merging of what the USN-USMC-Sikorsky team is doing at New River with the innovative solutions which Rheinmetall has provided in other areas for the Bundeswehr, provides a significant opportunity for innovation both on the level of the company and for the German forces.

“We are not looking at legacy solutions, nor is the MoD. We are working to provide solutions to support the operational force rather than having the operational force to be forced through the sieve of legacy defined maintenance base or facility.”

It is clear that in both the cases of the FCAS program and the CH-53K, that the Germans are looking to reshape their operating forces in way to become more effectively integrated and able to operate within a “combat cloud.”

The third aspect which I found interesting is the continuing evolution within the global defense landscape of the effort by states which have been largely importers of equipment from producing states to become much more capable of both supporting those assets within their own forces as well as building an enhanced capability within country to build and service new combat platforms.  “Made in India” has its own dynamics and challenges, but there are a variety of representations of “Made in India” occurring worldwide in the importing states.

Saudi Arabian Military Industries (SAMI) has come to its first major air show by having a chalet at the 2019 Paris Air Show. The vision for SAMI is as follows: To be among the top 25 military industry ‎companies in the world by 2030, combining the latest technologies and the best national talent to develop military products and services at par with international standards, and achieve the Kingdom’s self-sufficiency in military industries.

And the mission is described as follows: To develop cutting-edge technologies, manufacture world-class products, and provide high-quality services to scale up the military industries sector and secure necessary supplies for our clients

I attended a major event involving SAMI in which they signed a keystone agreement on June 18, 2019 with L3 to work together on developing joint capabilities with Saudi Arabia. The SAMI officials at the ceremony highlighted the importance of the agreement and also the incremental approach to working on building out local capabilities in conjunction with L3.

In a press release, SAMI highlighted the event as follows:

“We are pleased to partner with L3 as we move towards our goal of creating a Center of Excellence in the Kingdom,” said H.E. Ahmed Al-Khateeb, Chairman of SAMI.

“As we continue to support objectives tied to Saudi Vision 2030, this long-term partnership with L3 will help grow the sensor and mission systems industry while creating a comprehensive through-life support structure for our military customers.”

The fourth aspect of the show was totally unexpected and highlighted a key aspect of defense, which is often overlooked when watching airplanes flying overhead, namely, what is happening on the ground. Modern societies are becoming highly concentrated on urban centers rather than being capable of operating in a more dispersed landscape within which rust belts and rural society can become much more effective parts of a national system.

Dispersion and disaggregation not only can make for more pleasant lives for more people, but also provide for much greater redundancy and resilience for societies when dealing with the stress which security or military shocks can provide to the system.

The development of new approaches to rapid ground transportation which could use existing public right of ways to more effectively link diverse geographical regions.

Such a technology was on display at the Paris Air Show 2019. When passing various Chalets and Static exhibits, and parked in a corner of the Air Show, there was an odd-looking platform known as the Spacetrain. After visiting the exhibit on my first day at the PAS 2019, I went back later in the week to discuss with Charlotte Jurus, the Public Affairs Officer, for the company and learned that the platform on display actually is the prototype.

According to the company, “Spacetrain is a shuttle running on air cushions on an inverted T track and propelled by linear induction motors. All its electrical systems are powered by hydrogen fuel cells. The objective of the Spacetrain project is to commercialize its first shuttles by 2025.”

This is a French start-up company based in Paris and in the Orleans region, where the first prototype is being belt and tested. They are looking to use part of an abandoned monorail project, former test track of the engineer Jean Bertain, for the initial tests of their full-scale model and those tests are planned for 2021.

Jurus underscored that the company is leveraging the infrastructure left behind in the Orleans region for a competitor in the TGV project of the 1960s, which in a way, highlights one of the advantages of the project, namely, an ability to leverage what has already been built but abandoned. That project was abandoned in 1974.

The train would operate at a much lower rate of sound generation than the current TGV as well. he project would allow for the creation of a train able to move 250 passengers on a hydrogen fueled vehicle with the train operating on an air cushion.

The “track” would be a concrete bed with the sensors necessary to operate the train at speed and is designed to operate autonomously.

Of course, the system could be used to move freight as well providing for an energy efficient system to reshape the supply grid for a region or a nation. An operational system of Spacetrains clearly could operate using already established public right of ways and lay down a relatively inexpensive infrastructure on which to operate.

Obviously, it could be of great significance for urban transportation, but even more importantly, could connect the regions which have no TGV in France or in countries like Britain or the United States where rail systems have simply disappeared leaving behind forgotten cities and regions, the possibility could be opened to reinvigorate a much wider variety and range of regions in the national economic space.

According to Spacetrain their technology is based on “a unique energy management strategy, consisting of a smart subsystem. This multi-source energy system (composed of hydrogen fuel cells, lithium-ion batteries and super capacitors) is totally autonomous thanks to its own algorithm to management hybrid resources in real time.”

In short, almost everything interesting from the defense side of the business on display at the 2019 Paris Air Show was on the ground, and not in the air, but that may be increasingly important as innovation in defense drives new concepts of operations as well.

The challenge now being posed by the coming to airshows of the first fifth generation airplanes such as the F-35 is a significant one. The F-35 is a harbinger of fundamental change in terms of the concepts of operations for airpower, in which a multi-domain aircraft pilot is able to make decisions with the help of his onboard computers and with shared data far out at the tactical edge. A great deal of what makes the plane effective is radio waves, radar and software, not hardware. While the F-35 is hardly the end of history with regard to air combat, it is a page turner.

What is required now is that when visiting the chalets, pavilions or corrals of manufacturers building  missiles, UAVs, or C2 systems you need to look not just at the cool capabilities the piece of equipment provides, but focus on how that capability can be used in combat as part of a larger force. This is a much more significant challenge for the visitor, but it is crucial to understanding the way ahead of the world’s air combat forces.

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US Services at the Paris Air Show 2019