By Robbin Laird
The International Fighter Conference 2020 provided insights with regard to the evolution of combat airpower, notably with regard to enablers and effectors, and pathways to shaping greater force integration and multi-domain warfighting capabilities.
But to do what exactly?
And how best to do it?
The clear assumption of most of the presentations was that the conflict for which the fighter force was preparing was for the high-end fight against peer competitors or cutting through the ambiguity, China and Russia.
As these are nuclear powers, the question is and remains, how does the nuclear dimension weave itself into a major conventional war?
The only mention of the nuclear dimension was during a discussion about the French aircraft carrier Charles De Gaulle and its approach to operations. Here the readiness in being during deployment to deliver nuclear strike by onboard Rafales was discussed.
The French indeed have been the clearest among of the Western nuclear powers on the need for tactical air delivered strike and have continued their work, including modernization of weapons to indeed deliver this capability in their neighborhood as part of their deterrent posture.
As Pierre Tran has put it with regard to the most recent French defense budget: “The draft budget includes €1 billion of studies to develop the nuclear ballistic missile submarine, and a fourth generation nuclear-tipped, air-to-ground missile, the air-sol nucléaire 4ème génération (ASN4G) to replace the present nuclear-armed cruise missile, dubbed air-sol moyenne portée amélioré (ASMPA).”
The training to execute an air delivered tactical nuclear mission, provides pilots with an overall understanding of a complex strike mission which then carried over into the capabilities to excel at non-nuclear strikes as well.
This was evident when the French Air Force participated in the 2018 strike against Syrian chemical weapons sites.
As Murielle Delaporte put it: “Achieving all this synchronicity, C2 integration, redundancy, target selection and precision strike require in other words a very high level of technicity, which tends to stem in France from the fact it has been a nuclear power for more than five decades. In fact the whole French armed forces model is built around deterrence. France’s quick reaction force is defined upon the rigor, reactivity 24/7, safety and ability to penetrate a theater first, far away and in depth.
“French Air Force Base 113 in Saint-Dizier is one of the historic fighter base and nuclear base and it is from there that long-range raids can be performed, such as the 10-hour flight that was performed from the mainland to Syria this month over a distance of 7,000 kilometers (which required a total of five air refuelings).”
In addition to the core point, often forgotten or deliberately ignored, there will never a major conventional contingency against China or Russia that will not involve the nuclear dimension, certainly in terms of understanding how a campaign would be conducted.
There is also the critical issue that the attrition of the adversary’s ISR and C2 systems will inevitably affect those systems which are part of the nuclear warfighting system as well. And when there is a focuse, as the conference did, upon enhanced machine-to-machine and man-machine interactions to speed up the ability to kill adversary forces, the question of which targets with which significance are we talking about?
This is especially important when considering one of the most challenging of the warfighting issues – how to deal with heavily fortified areas from which either China or Russia would project force and how best to go after those forces.
For the Russians, we are talking about Kaliningrad and the Kola Peninsula. With regard to the direct threat against the Baltic states, Russia would project power from their territory against these states under the assumption that they have a sanctuary and given the proximity to St. Petersburg, which certainly is protected in part by Russian tactical nuclear weapons, complicates the picture.
This is why the United States for one is working on longer range strike conventional weapons to ensure that the Russians don’t believe their own thinking too much about an ability to push a conventional force from their territory as if that territory is a sanctuary.
And with regard to the Chinese, one presentation did raise the new USMC Commandant’s focus upon Marines building an Inside Force that would operate inside the First Island Chain as envisaged by the Chinese but that does raise questions of how the operations of such a force would affect Chinese nuclear as well as conventional calculations.
As Paul Bracken, the author of the second nuclear age, has put it: “The first thing is to realize it is woven into the entire fabric of a Pacific strategy. You don’t have to fire a nuclear weapon to use it. The existence of nuclear weapons, by itself, profoundly shapes conventional options.
The nuclear dimension changes the definition of what a reasonable war plan is for the U.S. military. And a reasonable war plan can be defined as follows: when you brief it to the president, he doesn’t throw you out of the office, because you’re triggering World War III.”
You can have have all of the Future Force Design 2030s or Future Combat Systems or Tempest discussions you want, but you have to be able to fight tonight, and that imperative is crucial for operational Air Forces, and any future capabilities take a back seat to that requirement.
Which raises the broader question: How do innovations being driven now shape how the future force will emerge? This certainly impacts on discussions about artificial intelligence and remotes or UAVs and what their role will actually be in the next decade as opposed to 2040 or 2050, which is long after I am dead.
The need to drive greater capability to make decisions more rapidly using ISR data and finding ways to execute decisions at the edge but ensure that the evolving strategic decisions are effective is a clear one.
Many of the presentations at the conference were indeed focused on technologies and approaches which were being shaped to ensure that the United States and its allies could operate their forces more effectively in a contested environment and to do so with the ability to draw upon the range of combat assets available now and in the future.
That is the real meaning of shaping multi-domain capabilities, for objectives are set by domain but the kill web approach looks to leverage combat assets in several domains to achieve those domain specific objectives.
The role of maritime air forces was discussed at the Conference as well. The role of sea-basing in generating capabilities which can be leveraged for full spectrum crisis management is expanding for sure. The impact of technologies and training are leading to ways to reimagine the role of amphibious and large deck carrier forces, and some of those changes were discussed at the conference.
In short, the International Fighter Conference 2020 although virtual was not simply that. It had some important impacts on the continuing process of rethinking the way ahead with the evolution of airpower in the reset of military strategy.
 Pierre Tran, “An Update on the French Nuclear Deterrent: The 2021 Budget,” Second Line of Defense (October 14, 2020), https://sldinfo.com/2020/10/an-update-on-the-french-nuclear-deterrent-the-2021-budget/.
 Murielle Delaporte, “French Quick Reaction Force Key to Syrian Missile Strikes,” Breaking Defense (May 2, 2018), https://breakingdefense.com/2018/05/french-quick-reaction-force-key-to-syrian-missile-strikes/.
 Robbin Laird, “Reshaping China Strategy: Reconsidering the Role and Place of the Military Dimension,” Second Line of Defense (April 14, 2020), https://sldinfo.com/2020/04/reshaping-china-strategy-reconsidering-the-role-and-place-of-the-military-dimension/.