Why is Airpower So Critical for a Country like France in the Current Context?

French Air Force Rafale Prepare for a Mission Against the Islamic State(Ministère de la Défense Photo)

French Air Force Rafale Prepare for a Mission Against the Islamic State
(Ministère de la Défense Photo)

This is the first part of a two-part article on French airpower in current contingencies.

Airpower, provided by the French Air Force as well as Army and Navy aviation, has always been an important component of the French armed forces; but in the current context, it is proving to be an even more critical tool than ever before.

France is currently one of the less inhibited western countries regarding the use of force. The inconclusive engagement in Afghanistan has had less impact in France than it did for countries such as the United States and the United Kingdom. These countries were more heavily committed in Afghanistan and as a consequence, more “exhausted” by their counterinsurgency efforts, which were furthermore simultaneous with the difficult Iraqi campaign. Conversely, military successes in Ivory Coast (to remove Laurent Gbagbo from power after he lost the election) and in Libya in 2011, convinced French leadership of the effectiveness of a limited use of force. President Hollande, elected in 2012, followed the same path as his predecessor. He did not hesitate to preempt the southward offensive of the AQIM-led jihadist coalition in Mali by launching Operation Serval, during which French forces achieved a tremendous military success by eradicating  the jihadi counter-state in the north of the country (which did not prevent overtime a reorganization and a return of Jihadi presence in that area). Paris concurrently engaged its troops in the Central African Republic (CAR) to stop ethnic and religious cleansing while restoring order. Despite a difficult start due to overconfidence in Paris, Operation Sangaris proved to be successful by significantly reducing the level of violence in Bangui and the CAR countryside. When Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons against the Syrian people in 2013, France was the most eager country to strike regime but did not proceed because the British and American administrations decided not to retaliate. French forces, with strong US support, are currently pursuing a protracted counter-terrorism campaign against Al Mourabitoune and other jihadi movements across the whole Sahel region (Operation Barkhane) while providing the third largest contribution (Operation Chammal) to the Operation Inherent Resolve coalition against the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).

In this context, airpower is critical whether it is employed as the primary means of the strategy or in support of the land forces in a joint campaign, which represents the most common use of air assets in contingencies.

First, as with other intervening powers, airpower provides French political decision-makers with a way to act at the end of the contingencies spectrum where boots on the ground is too politically or operationally risky compared to the stakes and/or impossible from a diplomatic perspective. In Iraq, airpower and special operations are currently the only practical options of a direct strategy of western countries against ISIL. Airstrikes achieved operational interdiction of ISIL offensives against the Kurds and in the Tigris Valley, and they remain the best instrument to prevent ISIL from achieving more important gains. Airpower proponents argue that these airstrikes are not conceived with the proper operational strategy. This may be the case, but nothing seems to indicate that airpower could contribute to more ambitious objectives than the containment of ISIL, whatever the operational strategy behind it, given western political-strategic restrictions and the political conundrum in Bagdad.

EC725 Caracal Supporting Operation Barkhane(Armée de Terre Photo)

EC725 Caracal Supporting Operation Barkhane
(Armée de Terre Photo)

Second, airpower has a tremendous importance in the current joint campaigns due to the huge size of the operations areas and the limited number of ground troops which are deployed. The capacity of French ground forces to execute combat operations simultaneously in various theaters is indeed continuously eroding due to the cuts brought about by the two defense strategic reviews of 2008 and 2013. Over the last 15 years, the operating force of the French Army has fallen from 100,000 men to about 70,000 today. While very efficient, French Special Forces, which may be compared to the US Joint Special Operations Command, count for merely 3,000 men. France can only rely on a few effective and willing partners in addition to the US. Some European partners support French efforts but do not want to commit ground combat forces in African theaters. Many others are reluctant to support any strategies that rely on the use of force. Several African forces are building increasing competence (as illustrated by Chadian forces in Mali) but they lack modern capabilities (C2, ISR, fire support, mobility, communications, etc.). Therefore, African contingents of UN missions in Mali or CAR are often confined to static security operations. The result is that ground troops with the ability to maneuver in a given theater are undersized. For Barkhane, the French posture, which should be reinforced in the coming months, currently relies on only two combined arms battalions for patrols and a few hundred special operators for surgical actions, in a theater equivalent in size of the whole American Southwest. Even though they concentrate on key areas and trails, the task is daunting. In CAR, the Sangaris Force, representing less than 2000 men, deployed four times in one year throughout the country to obviate the actions of the various armed groups (Séléka, anti-Balaka, etc.).

Recent terrorist attacks in Paris led President Hollande to consolidate the defense budget and limit personnel cuts. For the Army, the operating force should be augmented to 77,000 men, but the main rationale for this decision was the ability to sustain over time the 7,000-men Army contribution to the homeland defense mission. This means the strategic tempo of the contingency operations will be even more challenging to sustain. These operations should continue unabated, given the determination of the jihadists and the absence of credible local political entities to thwart them and to truly stabilize these areas. In such circumstances, ISR, mobility and fire support provided by French airpower are of vital importance.

Reaper Deployed as Part of Operation Barkhane( Photo)

Reaper Deployed as Part of Operation Barkhane
(Armée de l’Air Photo)

At the operational level, airborne ISR assets along with human intelligence and space GEOINT provided by Pleiades satellites are key pieces of intelligence support critical to orient the limited numbers of ground operators. These airborne ISR assets include Medium Altitude Long Endurance RPAs (primarily the new Reapers) and dedicated SIGINT aircraft, reinforced by a fleet of light ISR aircraft and/or Navy maritime patrol aircraft, as well as fighters performing IMINT reconnaissance and non-traditional ISR missions. In the Sahel region, the US support provided by RPAs in Niamey and the Joint Special Air Detachment in Burkina Faso is also invaluable. Airpower is also essential for mobility and the sustainment of the forces distributed throughout the theater, sometimes in very remote and austere locations such as Madama in Niger near the notorious Salvador pass at the border with Libya. Probably the most effective Barkhane course of action has been the series of long range direct actions by special forces, which eliminated many jihadi leaders. These would be impossible without the small fleet of attack and utility helicopters, just as fighter activities would be without permanently deployed tanker support in the region. New A400M airlift aircraft and NH-90 utility helicopters are being slowly introduced in our air mobility fleets, but the force remains mostly equipped with very aged platforms. Despite the prowess of their maintenance teams, these older platforms represent a major point of concern. Finally, air interdiction missions executed by Rafale and Mirage 2000D fighters were key to dislocating the AQIM footprint on the eve of Serval and, with ground assistance from the special forces, remain one of the preferred and more effective means of precision attack.

At the tactical level, it would be impossible at times to gain the upper hand on the adversary despite the great proficiency of our troops without airborne surveillance of the contact areas, close air support by fighters, or close combat attacks by Tigre and Gazelle helicopters. This is especially true when units are not covered by indirect fire support, which is common over such long distances. Enemies are increasingly skilled at tactics and determined to succeed. They are also often more mobile than our troops, particularly in tactical dismounted maneuver, in so far as French soldiers are overloaded by their equipment like other western armies. In CAR and Mali, like in Afghanistan previously, there are abundant examples of combat actions lasting for hours where enemies try to outflank French forces and only retreat after a Mirage, a Rafale, or a combat helicopter arrives on the scene. It must be noted that these relentless operations have allowed French air and ground forces to achieve a very high level of integration.

Against such adversaries, across such land expanses, and under such operational conditions, airpower truly represents the main “asymmetric advantage” of the French, as advocated by Air Force thinkers for a long time. In a second part, we will address more precisely the kind of airpower required to sustain this posture.

Philippe Gros is a research fellow at the Fondation pour la Recherche Stratégique, a Paris-based think tank dedicated to defense and security matters. He works mainly on forms of military engagements, military concepts and capabilities, primarily related to airpower, and on US defense policy. He was previously a concept/doctrine developer at the French Ministry of Defense.


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