LPM 2023: a trajectory already mapped out for the Air and Space Force?

During the 2000s and until 2015, the French Air Force, which has since become the Air and Space Force, was largely privileged, and sometimes envied, over other armies. In fact, it alone captured almost half of the equipment credits devoted to Major Effects Programs, forcing both the Army and the National Navy to review some of their programs by reducing their volumes and spreading out the costs. calendars. This situation was not so much due to a government preference or a form of lobbying, as to strong industrial constraints. Indeed, it was then necessary in order to keep the assembly line of the Rafale which at that time was not exported and was far from achieving such unanimity as today, including within the ruling political class, to produce 11 devices per year. And it was up to the Air Force to acquire the majority. At the same time, Paris had to respect its European commitments within the framework of the A400M program, also particularly expensive and subject to deviations. These two programs represented almost €2 billion per year in investments, or half of the €5 billion then devoted to Major Effects Programs, as part of an effort that was largely underfunded throughout this period.

However, these credits, taken in absolute value, were far from allowing the Air Force to significantly modernize its forces, or to take a significant lead in this area. Thus, in 2015, it could only implement around a hundred Rafale while only 3 A400Ms had been delivered to that date, and the Jaguar and Mirage F1CT/CR fleets had been withdrawn from service in 2005 and 2014 respectively. The last Mirage 2000N was due to leave service in 2018. As for to the last C160 Transall, it would leave the service in 2022. In fact, today, this critical air force in the West, which notably has a deterrence component, and which was very widely used in all theaters of operations above which the French armies operated, is seriously undercapacity, as its Chief of Staff, General Mille, pointed out during his last hearing before the Defense Committee of the National Assembly, estimating that his army lacked, for the hunting component alone, 40 aircraft to meet the challenges in the short and medium term. It will therefore be up to the next Military Programming Law, which will come into force in 2023, to meet these needs, which are far from being over-evaluated.

A format already insufficient in 2014

The current format of the Air and Space Force was defined within the framework of the White Paper drafted in 2014 following the election of François Hollande to the supreme office. Marked from its conception by a critical under-evaluation of threats, including immediate ones, this framework document planned to provide the Air Force with a fleet of 185 fighter planes, 50 heavy transport planes as well as 12 tanker aircraft, to name only the most significant fleets. Written in 2013, the White Paper was obsolete even before it was publicly presented in April 2014, when the French Armies intervened in Mali as part of Operation Serval from January 2014, barely a month later. the start of Operation Sangaris in the Central African Republic. A month later, the Russian armies militarily seized Ukrainian Crimea, marking the beginning of a crisis which today conditions the defense efforts of all of Europe. However, the French authorities did not amend this White Paper or its obviously insufficient budgetary and capacity trajectory after its publication, despite significant developments in the international security context. It even took the strong and determined intervention of the Minister of Defense, Jean-Yves le Drian, as well as the 4 chiefs of staff at the time, to prevent the socialist government from going even further in the reductions format and numbers.

Atelier Rafale 1 Defense Analysis | Nuclear weapons | Fighter aircraft
In order to keep the production line in operation Rafale, the Air Force ordered 11 aircraft per year until 2015, and the signing of the first export contracts

The fact remains that the format then defined for the Air Force, as for the two other armies, remains the reference in terms of planning, this having been laid down in particular as an unremovable basis of work during the drafting of the Strategic Review. of 2017, as during its revision of 2021, and this, even if it was obvious that this format was not even sufficient to support the operational pressure of French external operations in recent years. In addition, if deliveries of A400M and A330 MRTT continued beyond 2015, those of Rafale were suspended with the signing of the first export contracts, making it possible in particular to free up credits to finance other critical programs such as Scorpion for the Army, or the replacement of the SSN, frigates and replenishment tankers of the French Navy. Not only did the Air Force no longer receive Rafale between 2016 and 2022, but at the same time it had to withdraw its Mirage 2000N, then its Mirage 2000C, from service, while 24 of its Rafale were taken from him to be exported second-hand to Greece and Croatia. In fact, today, the French fighter fleet consists of 96 Rafale B and C, of ​​which around twenty are dedicated to the deterrence mission and 3 to training, 28 Mirage 2000-5, as well as 66 Mirage 2000D, i.e. less than 200 aircraft, where it fielded 380 at the beginning of the years 2000.

The tactical transport fleet is not much better off, with 19 A400M Atlas operating alongside 18 C-130 Hercules and 27 CN-235 light tactical transport aircraft, where it lined up more than 80 C160 Transall before. In the end, only its fleet of tanker aircraft saw its format maintained, the 15 KC-135 stratotankers acquired in the 60s from the United States having to be replaced by 15 A330 MRTT Phoenix, a much more efficient aircraft. On the other hand, the fleet of French military satellites, now under the control of the Air Force, now the Air and Space Force, has grown considerably, with the arrival of NCO optical reconnaissance satellites. (2 satellites), Pléiades (2 units) and Pléiades Neo (4 satellites), as well as the electromagnetic intelligence satellites Elisa and CERES (7 satellites), and communication satellites with the 3 satellites of the Syracuse IV system and 2 French satellites -Italians. Finally, the Air Force has acquired 12 Male MQ-9A Reaper drones, to which will be added the 6 Euromale systems currently being designed, and has been assigned control of anti-aircraft defense at long range hitherto the responsibility of the Army, and uses 6 SAMP/T Mamba batteries, i.e. 2% of the number of S300-400 batteries in Russia.

Reaper Air Force Defense Analyzes | Nuclear weapons | Fighter jets
the arrival of the MQ9A Reaper played an important role in the air support provided by the Air Force to the French forces engaged in Mali as part of Operation Barkhanne

However, and although in many aspects the Air Force still has a format superior to that targeted by the 2014 White Paper, experience has shown without the slightest doubt that it is seriously under-capacity, even though it was then only a question of supporting military actions above low or medium intensity theaters, as in sub-Saharan Africa and the Levant. Indeed, the cumulative effect of an intense use of air resources in external operations led to a very rapid consumption of aircraft potential, attrition linked to modernization programs, and an undersized fleet, led to a collapse availability rates for all fleets, accentuated, it is true, by poor organization of maintenance, partly linked to the management of just-in-time parts incompatible with operational reality. However, if 200 combat aircraft are not enough to support an operational activity in support of a few low-intensity external operations, it is clear that this format will not be sufficient to support a high-intensity action over time for the benefit of the French armies. or allies.

Critical capacity dead ends

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