The Future of The French Air Force: A Future Combat Air System as a Strategy to Counter Access Denial

By David Pappalardo

Along with its major European partners, by 2030, France is committed to design a Future Combat Air System (FCAS) that overcomes the ever-growing contest of Western air supremacy around the world. In that sense, the FCAS will be considered a system on a level beyond the fighter jet, a “combat cloud” operating across all domains and pursuing three main objectives: info dominance, survivability in denied areas, and full spectrum targeting. Relying on a combination of a networked architecture, a multi domain approach, and on smarter varied platforms, the FCAS has ultimately no other ambition than to preserve France’s capability for ‘first entry’ operations.

FCAS: a response to a need

The FCAS evolves from the necessity to overcome tensions between the French tradition of independence in military operations and the spread of Anti-Access / Area Denial (A2/AD) strategies. In a 2013 study, the French Institute for International Relations (IFRI) points out that air superiority, until recently, appeared to be a presupposition; a strategic thought never questioned. Conversely, this study of current counter-strategies, whether in symmetrical or asymmetrical warfare, highlights the fundamental conclusion that “the period of air superiority we have known for almost 25 years [was] a historic exception.”

In a follow-up study, published in December 2017, the French scholar Corentin Brustlein claims that the erosion of the Western advantage in terms of air supremacy thwarts France’s “ambition to autonomously conduct first entry operation.” As a military expeditionary power, air superiority remains indeed the prerequisite to maintain France’s “ability to perform deep precision strikes, independent capability for first entry in a theatre of operation, command capability and to assume the role of framework nation in a medium-scale interallied operation or an influential role preserving our sovereignty in a multi-national operation.”

Therefore, the tension between these two opposing views drives the efforts to define the future combat air system. “Hedging against [A2/AD counter strategies],” Corentin Brustlein argues, [will] require increased resources and tailored capability developments, in order to prevent France from losing strategic credibility, leverage, and autonomy.”

A full combat system

Facing this challenge, the Air Force Deputy Chief of Staff for Planning, Major General Thierry Angel, explains that the “Air Force has to become part of an overall air combat system [based] on an interoperable network of weapon systems that cover the widest possible spectrum and are themselves interconnected and also linked into a robust command architecture.”

A combat cloud to augment survivability

Such an architecture aims to mesh platforms, sensors and decision-makers into a flexible and adaptable web, to win the information war and augment survivability in denied environments. Following this logic, the Vice Chief of Staff of the French Air Force Lieutenant General Olivier Taprest is considering “the integration of airborne platforms and sensors as part of an information exchange cloud to optimize the reactivity, survivability and responsiveness of the vectors.”

First, this overall combat system tries to move away from the classical concept of the fighter aircraft. Platforms will be considered “not only as effectors but also as sensors and data relays in a C2 network that relies on automatic interconnection,” Lt. Gen. Taprest says. Following in the steps of the U.S. Air Superiority 2030 Enterprise Capability Collaboration Team (ECCT), French strategy strives to develop a “system of systems” networked together in a “plug, share, fly, and fight” architecture. In the words of General Denis Mercier, head of Supreme Allied Commander Transformation (SACT) and former Chief of Staff of the French Air Force, “FCAS will neither be a UCAS nor a fighter but the combination of different elements: it will be a holistic system.” Rather than talking about fighters, we should therefore prefer the term “sensor-shooter” or “node” in a larger battle network, whose power will be used “to compensate for the weaknesses of platforms when considered in isolation,Lt. Gen. Taprest explains. In other words, the ultimate purpose of the Combat Cloud is to increase the survivability and the resilience of vectors in a denied environment to maintain its freedom of action.

A C4ISTAR architecture to win the info war

Furthermore, the FCAS backbone will be a resilient and flexible C4 – Command, Control, Communications, Computers – architecture, integrated with ISTAR capabilities – Intelligence, Surveillance, Targeting and Reconnaissance – for the purpose of easing the flow and circulation of data.

According to Lt. Gen. Taprest, “the Combat Cloud’s priority will be the free circulation of information, data transfer and connectivity within the future French operational command and control systems.” The aim is to impose the battle rhythm on the enemy, through the sequestration of information as leverage. The French Scholar Olivier Zajec argues that winning the instrumental battle of information will rely on a threefold superiority of Velocity, Saturation, and Stealth by the application of abundant (saturation), swift (velocity) and very low detectable (stealth) military effects.  Therefore, this “VSS superiority” seeks to overcome the effects of an integrated air defense system (IADS) through enemy paralysis, since the effectiveness of combat will depend on the synergy created between the land, sea, air, cyber and space environment.

A multi-domain approach to augment survivability for large spectrum targeting

FCAS, in 2030, must account for a multi-domain battlespace where the three “fluid domains” –  air, space, and cyberspace –  converge. Referring to the French military historian Laurent Henninger’s theory of fluid and solid spaces in its relationship to air operations, the French scholar Joseph Henrotin explains how the first “meta-mission” of airpower has become “fluidizing the solid” through targeting effects. In fact, air, space, and cyberspace are classical fluid environments in the sense that they “facilitate progression and thus the offensive,” but the aforementioned rise of counter-air strategies, through its double-digit SAM and IADS, thwarts the offensive ambitions of airpower by “solidifying the fluid.” Therefore, Joseph Henrotin invites the Air Force “to combine a fundamentally fluid identity – [that is in air, space and cyber] –  with the search for results in solid spaces.”

Critically, classical application of airpower is no longer in position to overcome modern IADS. The key to success will rely on the synchronization of effects, whether they be lethal or non-lethal, against material or non-material domains. In that sense, Lt. Gen. Taprest refers to the British concept of full spectrum targeting that echoes the multi domain approach. This logic seeks to apply synchronized actions in fluid domains to obtain synergistic effects for the benefit of the joint campaign.

By the same token, full spectrum targeting must be considered beyond the pointless level of war debate between the tactical school and the strategic one. According to Joseph Henrotin, “this concept of targeting is not ‘strategic’ or ‘tactical’ based on the used technique (…). Rather, in this light, targeting is a major political act because it allows an actor to project airpower potential into the heart of an enemy’s disposition to induce systemic effects.” Ultimately, airpower’s effectiveness lies in its versatility to overcome the classical dichotomy between the level of wars. Airpower does foster strategic effects by projecting power into the heart of an enemy’s disposition to induce systemic effects. Conversely, airpower does have tactical effects by means of its ability to neutralize the enemy forces to enable ground maneuver. Opposing the two leads to an impasse and undermines the joint campaign. Meshing the two through a continuum is a key to improvement.

Therefore, a combat cloud architecture, designed as a multi-domain approach, should shape the spearhead to stand up to the A2AD system by increasing survivability, winning the info war, and fostering synergistic effects across the domains. Maj. Gen. Angel sums up this ambition in the following terms: “to counter hard-to-pinpoint threats and asymmetric conflicts the Air Force needs to improve its capability for intelligence gathering, reconnaissance and surveillance. There, too, platforms and captors need to be networked in order to speed up the decision-making process to near real time, and to engage the enemy at the right moment by virtue of using weapons adapted to the environment and to the military effects to be achieved.”

The challenges of the FCAS

Do not discount the value of numbers in a potential war of attrition

First, the French Air Force should not forget to take attrition into consideration, and restore “an operational thickness” to manpower and platform numbers. Numbers still matters, especially when the ambition is to gain access to a highly defended system. All other things being equal, the Ukrainian example in Donbass is eloquent: its air force lost around 40 platforms during the crisis, much more than the French Air force can assemble for an air campaign today.

Develop spectrum dominance

Second, France must increase, along with its European partners, its investment in specific technological paths on which the future of multidimensional air combat relies. Olivier Zajec highlights this idea in his article when he refers to what the United States calls spectrum dominance, that is, the necessity to stay at the cutting edge of data fusion, automation and processing capacity, robotics and artificial intelligence. “Whatever the threat,” Maj. Gen. Angel points out, “the need for connectivity is the foundation of the entire future air combat system. Networking of weapon systems and the associated real-time exploitation of ever-greater quantities of data whose added value comes from decisional aids, such as big data and artificial intelligence, render possible modes of collaborative combat that will enhance the intrinsic power of the platforms concerned.” Yet, this need for connectivity equally raises the biggest challenge for the French Air Force: the right balance between interoperability and autonomy.

Balance interoperability with autonomy

On an international level, the United States naturally leads the thinking about the combat cloud. The USAF encourages contributions to a collaborative network to ease the integration of its partners. But, integration does not mean entire assimilation of the European industry.
Lt. Gen. Taprest warns that strategic visions and procurement processes cannot be strictly identical all the time. According to him, “it is therefore particularly necessary to take part in studies of the Combat Cloud that have been initiated by the United States and NATO, through the work of SACT.” Conversely, the French Air Force must preserve its ability to act autonomously within its own cloud, especially for the mission of nuclear deterrence. In that sense, France strives to develop national secured networks, able to be both plugged into any partner’s clouds and segregated from them. These solutions “consist of constructing bridges to allow different networks to communicate with each other, or of equipping each foreign combat system with its own converter to allow it to connect to the Combat Cloud,” Lt. Gen. Taprest reports.

In conclusion, the French Air Force aims to employ a full overall combat system as a strategy to counter access denial and therefore, defend its autonomy through both decision and action. FCAS is designed around an “exchange and combat cloud,” both interoperable and sovereign, merging sensors, platforms and decision-makers into a single mesh. To succeed, such an architecture must fulfill three main goals: 1) increase survivability, 2) win the info war, and 3) foster synergistic effects across all domains.

David Pappalardo is a French Air Force Officer and student at the Air Command and Staff College. As a multirole Rafale pilot, he is the former commander of the 2/30 fighter Squadron “Normandie-Niémen” and has been involved in several operations over Africa, Afghanistan, and the Levant since 2007.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Ministère Des Armées, the French Government, or the United States Air Force.

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