French defense leadership discusses future air combat systems

Every year, the French La Tribune business newspaper holds the Paris Air Forum, a conference about civil and military aviation, and defense topics in general. The forum is organized around roundtables featuring the who’s who of French industry and government. In 2016, one of these roundtables was about the future of air war, with speakers from the French national aerospace lab, the research institute from the top military school and the defense procurement agency. It was one of the main sources of my article on Future Combat Air Systems

This year, there has been a follow-up conference, entitled “What will the collaborative air combat of the future look like?”. So in order to keep up to date on the topic, I translated the beginning of the talk, which feature the Chief of the Air Staff and the director of strategy at the French defense procurement agency. Their introductory talks give a good overview of how the French government sees air warfare in the future, and how its thinking has evolved since two years ago:

Michel Cabirol: So for this important round table for the future of the air force and of armies in general, entitled “what will the collaborative air combat of the future look like?”, I have the immense pleasure to welcome:
-General André Lanata, Chief of Staff of the Air Force
-Caroline Laurent, director of strategy of DGA, the French defense procurement agency
-Antoine Nogué, director of strategy at Airbus defense & space
-and Mr. Philippe Duhamel, deputy general manager in charge of defense mission systems at Thales

So general you are going to open fire, you have the honor to open fire.


General Lanata: We are used to that.
Cabirol: A simple question to begin to warm up, what will the collaborative air combat of the future look like, especially regarding the platforms that will make up this system of systems, even if you obviously prefer to speak about the system of systems itself?
Lanata: A short introductory word that will answer your question, an introductory word in three points if I may:
– the first to reaffirm the decisive role of air power in the conflicts of today
– secondly, perhaps to point out two or three trends that seem to me to be central in the evolutions that we are seeing
-and finally answer your question directly

Air power is decisive in today’s conflicts, it is proven by the operations: there is no reconquest of the ground in Syria without air power. Second example, the Hamilton operation we conducted recently. This strike operation against Syrian chemical sites makes it possible to manifest a political will where no other means makes it possible to do so. Third example, we will carry out a projection of power and strength in southeast Asia next summer, with Rafale fighters and A400m. This makes it possible to show the presence of France in distant countries, countries where we have interests. We are in the logic of air diplomacy, therefore.

Operation Pegase, the power projection move Lanata is talking about

After the proof by the operations, the proof by the investments that our rivals or opponents realize: Russia will field nearly 1000 last-generation fighters in 2030, it has almost doubled in recent years the density of its surface-to-air missiles. China will be the third military air power by 2030, with nearly 800 fighters, half of which will be last-generation fighters. Our allies also make investments: in the United States or in Europe, the F-35 weighs on the equations of course. It is a tool that structures the architectures of force systems and incidentally dries up European investments. Among these investments are new technologies such as hyper velocity, space assets of course, low frequency radars, cobotics, artificial intelligence. All this to tell you that the future of our aviation, our combat aviation in particular, is strategic. In addition to the stakes of nuclear deterrence, it is a sign of power, it is linked to security issues and to major technological and industrial issues, and in this competition France must hold its rank. The President of the Republic reaffirmed it and the military programming law that has just been voted takes the measure of these issues by initiating work on our future combat aircraft.
It is a complex topic where political, economic, international, industrial, technological and operational dimensions are intertwined, the last of which I am responsible for.
Among these operational issues, this is my second point, I identify three main issues with respect to the air force.
First air supremacy: today airspaces are increasingly challenged, I gave you the example of Syria. Since the control of the ground is linked to the control of the air, we obviously notice a growing challenge in these airspace. The proof of this being that an Israeli F-16 was shot down recently, which is unusual. A Russian fighter was also shot down recently: attrition will become a factor in air combat tomorrow. There will be no air operations and no military operations without control of air and space.
The second issue is the mass, that is to say the forces that we are able to oppose, in other words the number of planes. Our aircraft and our crews are versatile but do not have the gift of ubiquity, they can not be everywhere at the same time. Moreover, as I just said, attrition in combat becomes a factor. I think we have to integrate this hypothesis into our calculations.
Thirdly, I come to your point, the issue of connected collaborative combat.
Here again the proof by the operations, it is already a reality when in the Sahel we combine the use of long-endurance drones, special forces, combat helicopters, fighters, tankers, all that related to our command and control systems by datalinks and long-distance communications, we are already in connected collaborative combat. Today, we are gaining more and more efficiency from this greater connectivity, which speeds up the combination and strengthens the combination of effects delivered by each individual platform. I emphasize technological and human issues in this area, and I think that because we have to guarantee the skills, I think we underestimate the HR issues in this area, both for the skills required and how we think of man’s role in this complex system, faced with artificial intelligence for example.

Long-distance bombing mission in Sahel

What are the challenges of the future in the face of all this? First, without surprising you, air supremacy, this ability to enter first, to control the airspace etc: our answer, the future air combat system. Some short convictions on this subject.

– First, we must start by evaluating the system architectures to target our investments. Evaluate the system architectures as we assume that it is the system that produces the answer, not a single platform, we have to think about these architectures and that’s why – I’ve already expressed myself on this subject, I saw that you had included it in your articles, I thank you for it – to evaluate the system architectures it is to start thinking about the good architectures of this combat system taken as a whole to target our investments .
– Second, worry about the sharing standards that structure this system. In addition to the information technology aspect of a system designed for data integration to meet our operational needs, there is a political stake behind this: unlike the f-35 which is a closed system that creates standards by its only existence, we want a system capable of integraing our partners especially in Europe.
– And a third conviction, this system will consist of a combination of piloted and unmanned platforms. It is too early to answer the question of how much, since architectures and architectural studies will allow us to answer them.
– Fourth, to address the complexity of the evolution of this system, an incremental approach is needed. We are already in the connected collaborative combat, I gave you the example of Sahel. With the arrival of the standard f 4 of the Rafale fighter on the 2025 timescale, we will be at a v2 of this connected collaborative combat. It is probably necessary to imagine another milestone on the timescale of the renewal of the airborne nuclear component, that is to say after 2030, then to tend towards the future air combat system.
– Last but not least, we need to advance our current and future systems in the field of permanence of aerial actions. It is this ability to constantly weigh on the adversary the weight of the national will that changes the figure of war.
Secondly, to guarantee the control of the third dimension, that is to say-it depends on the ability to survive in disputed areas of the environment- and here we must find the right balance between passive stealth, active stealth, and counter-measures, precision weapons fired from a long distance, the ability to saturate enemy defenses possibly using drones, cyber, etc. This thinking is important to conduct as part of the reflections on our architectures to properly target our investments and technologies that we need.









Finally we must obviously not forget the C2, ie the command and control system that integrates all actions and actors of the third dimension by integrating the cyberspace dimension of course.
This is in a few words my vision, cutting in the bends of course, my vision of our future.


Cabirol: Thank you, General. Caroline Laurent, should we now speak in terms of air warfare between networks and no longer air combat in the classic sense of the term that we know today.
Caroline Laurent: Actually I think that’s the big break or the big revolution, it’s the war between networks, and when we build or think about a future combat system, we think first threats as André explained. It is first the threats that have evolved, it is first the air defense systems that are themselves networked, in countries that have continued to acquire many new technologies
So in fact we have today – the airmen face- networks of systems, sensor networks, data fusion from different sensors. There are not only radars, and even less radars at a single frequency. So that’s why there are real challenges, so-called denial of access in some countries. In fact now we face a networked digitized threat. Faced with this, we need a collaborative combat system and a networked system. I would have not quite said that we are already in collaborative connected combat, I would have said that we are now in connected combat and that we must move to collaborative combat.

2018-04-22 21_42_10-Safran at the heart of the FCAS combat drone - YouTube
The threat bubbles of an Integrated Air Defense System


But André you’re right the collaboration already exists, except that it goes through the ground, it goes through the ground C2, and so we could say that what is missing today is collaborative combat connected in real time. Currently we do not necessarily have the same plane that detects, that decides, and that strikes. There are already interactions with the ground but on the other hand these interactions are not quite in real time, and we do not have real-time processing of all the information. So in fact it is the novelty is a network facing a network, and this network is a system of systems, it is a combat system first of all, with several objects that are connected to each other, and in these objects there is a piloted aircraft, in these objects of course there is already today a tanker somewhere and then an AWACS that makes the command and monitoring system. They will still be there but they will be different. There are drones, there will be drones that already exist, we already use surveillance drones, there will be other types of drones.
We worked a lot, and you know it, on a stealth combat drone with the British. Today we ask ourselves a lot of questions: Is the complement of the combat aircraft a stealthy drone that is armed or not armed – rather an ISR stealth drone – in any case there is a stealth component. To respond to an almost perfect defense we have to separate the variables and that’s why we call this a system of systems, it’s because we have to allocate different performances to each object. To penetrate the defenses you have to be stealthy, you have to be super fast and you have to be highly maneuvrable and we think that you can not have that in the same object anymore.
So what object will be stealthy, what object will still be supersonic and maneuvering, what object is going to be not supersonic but hypersonic because we have to go even faster? We think that what is hypersonic is the missile, and that the stealthy part is the drone that follows along, and that the piloted aircraft must remain very maneuvrable and supersonic, so there are different components. Collaborative combat is the fact that all this performance is separated between several objects, and in the performance there is also the detection performance, there are also the sensors which themselves are distributed and the fact that a composite sensor -multiple sensors distributed on multiple platforms- is much more efficient than one, so the overall system will be much more efficient than each of the objects of course, and each object will no longer be able to meet the mission alone.


That’s a bit of a transformation, and so after what parts of this system will we sell, what will we share, because as the Chief of Staff of the air force you have to stay interoperable and have partners?


The rest of the conference is available on youtube, the auto-translated captions give a rough translation:



La Tribune also published a summary article.

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