French military aerospace

On 29 April, the French government published its White Paper policy document on defence and national security outlining plans leading up to 2020. The intention is to try and retain as much front line capability as possible despite a need to reduce government spending.

6th Jun 2013

 French military aerospace


Byline: Richard Gardener / London

On 29 April, the French government published its White Paper policy document on defence and national security outlining plans leading up to 2020. The intention is to try and retain as much front line capability as possible despite a need to reduce government spending. With the French economy now suffering a triple dip recession the socialist government in Paris is caught between a rock and a hard place when it comes to wanting to boosting investment and safeguard future industrial capacity while at the same time overall government spending continues to outstrip tax revenues and debt is soaring The massive ongoing financial crisis within the Euro-zone refuses to go away as the tonic seems so unpopular across Europe and successive emergency conferences just result in more short-term measures without addressing the fundamental issues.

Hugely unpopular austerity measures in France are piling on the agony and there is still rising unemployment - but with no easy options left the powerful trade unions in France and the historic culture of street protest, means that whatever is attempted by the government to try and make the books balance the prospect of political unrest is never far from the surface. Inevitable cuts in expenditure are undoubtedly going to impact further on the French military procurement budget, though everyone is aware that once industrial capabilities are cut back it may be impossible to regenerate a world class sector later on. So, while there will be some defence cuts in the French Services, these will initially be made in training and second line support areas rather than in high-profile national capability, such as nuclear weapons, space systems or the Rafale programme.

The revised French military procurement plans for 2020 include most of the programmes already underway, though some adjustments will be made to overall numbers. It includes: 140 reconnaissance and attack helicopters, 30 Army operated UAVs, 115 utility helicopters, 225 multi-role fighters, 50 tactical transports, seven AEW&C detection and surveillance aircraft, 12 new air tankers and 12 surveillance drone UAVs. This total front line fleet is slightly reduced in comparison to today’s inventory, but some areas where the French military planners wanted action have not yet been addressed. This includes the future development of UAVs and a new anti-ship missile system. The UK is very concerned as it is a partner in both programmes, resulting from an Anglo-French Treaty in 2010 to jointly work together on future generations of military UAVs and next-generation missiles. Both France and the UK are anxious to maintain the development momentum on these key areas of future activity as much investment and technical work has already been carried out and lengthy delays will threaten prospects later on for competitive export offerings to a wider world market.

The future is unmanned?

On 1 December 2012, Dassault announced that Europe’s unmanned combat air vehicle, nEUROn, had successfully completed its maiden flight. This demonstrator programme was launched in 2005 and involves France, Italy, Sweden, Spain, Greece and Switzerland and is intended to gain new knowledge on building and integrating a stealthy, autonomous, unmanned platform and to evaluate its performance under trial conditions. nEUROn features a 10 meter long fuselage, with a 12.5 meter wingspan and a low radar signature. It also has an operating internal weapons bay and flight tests will progress from flying trials in France, to autonomous trials in Sweden starting in 2014. These trials will be followed by further weapons firing and stealth trials in Italy. The nEUROn is powered by a single Rolls-Royce Turbomeca Adour engine.

The demonstrator seems well on track to achieve its aims - contributing experience that will be needed for a future generation of stealthy unmanned air vehicles, assuming operational requirements emerge and they are affordable. Much of this advanced technology will also be applicable to a future manned combat aircraft as well, if that is how market needs develop over the next decade. Britain’s own national unmanned combat air vehicle demonstrator, Taranis, is also expected to make its first flight, probably at Woomera, Australia, this year, and might, one day, become part of a joint European UCAV programme.

So these vehicles are both very important to keeping Europe in the advanced military air programme game in the long term. However, immediate prospects for production orders for an interim advanced UAV, based on the BAE Mantis, which was supposed to be jointly developed with Dassault, now look less likely, as neither country currently has sufficient funds in their defence budgets to move beyond demonstrators. As the Afghanistan NATO commitments draw to a close for substantial French and British deployments, the present small fleets of interim UAVs may well be grounded, or even disposed of, so the debate on how many, and of what configuration their more permanent replacements should be, has hardly even begun. The cancellation of Germany’s EuroHawk UAV (Jointly developed by EADS and Northrop Grumman) demonstrates how fragile European commitment to unmanned technologies really is in an era of austerity.


The highest profile French military air programme today is undoubtedly the Dassault Rafale, which since the last Paris air show has won the all-important selection by the Indian Air Force for a new medium multi role combat aircraft. Despite negotiations throughout last year, which were due to conclude at the end of March 2013 with a confirmation of the order for up to 126 aircraft, the talks are still continuing, as is often the case with Indian defence procurement deals. The complex arrangements for local production by HAL of the majority of the Rafale deliveries are understandably taking a while to sort out, and the very advanced specification has introduced factors that Dassault is determined to overcome so that the aircraft can be introduced and supported over decades to come without difficulties arising later on.

Dassault is continuing to offer the Rafale in competition worldwide with the Eurofighter Typhoon and US fighters, including the F-35 and F/A-18E/F Super Hornet. The Rafale has an edge on the Typhoon at present as it is in full production with the Thales RBE-2 AESA radar, which gives the pilot an outstanding degree of situational awareness and targeting information. The French Air Force and French Navy are already receiving new AESA-equipped Rafale multi-role fighters and Dassault will be upgrading earlier aircraft to the new standard. Brazil is a key export target for the company and a couple of years ago the country announced a Rafale selection to replace its Mirage fighters, but a premature Presidential statement to this effect was over-ruled by the Brazilian Air Force and the replacement competition is still wide open. Dassault, in the meantime, is gaining valuable extra revenues from upgraded Mirage 2000 contracts which include major radar, avionics and weapons replacement. The Indian Air Force Mirage 2000 fleet is currently being upgraded to a standard that will maintain viability for another 15-20 years of front line service. Other Mirage 2000 export customers are also expected to upgrade their fleets.

With fewer all-new aircraft designs emerging in recent years, the focus at Paris will undoubtedly be on developments that offer enhanced performance, capability and value for money. The market for upgrades is booming as operators seek affordable ways of extending the lives of aircraft fleets with modernised radars, avionics, cockpit displays and new weapons. Integrating new systems onto established platforms has become a valuable source of revenue for the largest global suppliers as well as smaller specialist companies, especially as orders for new military aircraft are being reduced or postponed. The supply of long-term managed product support through the life of an aircraft fleet is today even bigger business than the initial supply of the aircraft or system.

Total lifetime support can include airfield infrastructure, crew training, maintenance, repair and periodic upgrading of the platform and its major systems, and weapons where appropriate. Dassault and Thales are two French groups that are very active in this area of activity. Sagem is part of the giant Safran group, and provides advanced UAV vehicles and all support facilities and highly successful modular air-to-ground precision weapons (AASM family). These weapons provide a high accuracy attack performance and comprise guided systems that can be fitted to standard MK 82 and other bombs. These can give a 50km stand-off range and can be dropped from high, medium or low level. The weapon has been proven in action over Libya and Afghanistan carried aboard Rafale fighters.

In France, as with most other major European players in the aerospace and defence sector, much activity is now conducted within international partnerships. However, although French companies have a major shareholding in EADS, which includes Airbus, Airbus Military, MBDA, Astrium Space and Eurocopter, the nation also retains national champions in the shape of Dassault, Arianespace and companies that have also become multi-national, such as the Safran and Thales Groups. Earlier this year EADS underwent a significant restructuring which largely removed the government veto in group management decisions and brought the aerospace giant more in line with fully commercial operations. (The degree of political interference in the previous EADS management structure was well illustrated when German leader Angela Merkel reportedly vetoed the proposed EADS/BAE Systems merger, even though it was supported by UK, French and German company managements.)

This year’s Paris air show will feature 2,160 exhibitors from 44 countries, and will reflect the growing globalisation of the industry. Speaking on 23 April, at the annual presentation of France’s aerospace industry report for 2012, the President of the French trade organization, GIFAS, Jean Paul Herteman, said, “ The aerospace and defence industries are clusters of excellence that France must maintain as they contribute to sovereignty, economic development, skilled labour and its position on the most innovative technologies.”

Last year France’s aerospace and defence revenues grew by 16% to 42.5 billion Euros. Exports rose 20% to 26.98 Euros, representing 75% of turnover, and orders in 2012 reached 49.7 billion Euros. A large proportion of the 74% which were civil sales came from Airbus activity, but France is also building large numbers of Dassault Falcon business jets and its share of ATR regional airliners, as well as being a 50% partner in the CFM56 engine programme, the world’s biggest selling civil jet engine. Including indirect as well as direct jobs in the aerospace/defence sector, France employs an estimated total of 310,000 people.

New Transports

The French Air Force is about to take delivery of its first production A400M military transport and the new type should enter operational service at the end of this year. The order for 50 aircraft will replace existing fleets of Transall and C-130E Hercules tactical airlift aircraft. Further deliveries to Germany, the UK, Spain and Turkey will follow and Airbus Military is marketing the A400M in global export markets.

The A440M bridges the gap between the smaller C-130 and the larger C-17, and can fly from France to the Gulf non-stop. The maximum payload is over 80,000lbs and it can operate into short, rough surfaces as well as from conventional runways. The design also has built in provision for use as an air tanker, using removable underwing flight refuelling pods. Converting to the tanking role requires no internal modification and the cargo hold can still be used for freight or passengers. All A400Ms have a refuelling probe.

Airbus Military has also had great sales success with its smaller military transport aircraft, which include the C212, CN235 and CN295. Owing to the sheer volume of activity at the Airbus civil assembly site at Toulouse, a new facility was built in Spain for Airbus Military final assembly and flight testing. The Franco-Italian ATR twin turboprop regional airliner, which still does have a Toulouse final assembly line, has been chosen by many military customers for use as a VIP transport, coastguard patrol aircraft, and as a navy and air force maritime patrol aircraft. As well as sea search radar, the MPA version carries electro-optical and infrared sensors for day or night identification and tracking of surface targets and small vessels. Onboard display systems enable surveillance of large areas of coastline or open sea, with multiple tracking and data-links to ships, shore bases or other aircraft.

Dassault Aviation produces the Falcon 900LX, 2000LX and 7X business jets alongside Rafale and these bizjets serve as government VIP transports and also maritime patrol aircraft with many air forces, navies and coastguard organizations. The Falcon family has been considerably upgraded over the years, and at the 2013 Paris Air Show Dassault will be celebrating the 50th Anniversary of the original Falcon 20. Since then over 2,250 members of the jet family have been delivered. Airbus Military is leading the sales battle in the export market for large tanker transports with the A330 MRTT, which is now in service with the air forces of the UK, Australia, UAE and Saudi Arabia. France is to procure 12 and India has selected the aircraft as its new strategic tanker, though no contract has yet been signed. The tankers are built on the standard A330 line in France but fitted out with all the specialised military systems and refuelling equipment in Spain.

Within the EADS/Eurocopter Group, the French aerospace industry has a big stake in all the major programmes, including the EC725 Cougar and EC532 Super Puma, NH-90, Tiger UHT attack helicopter, and the Fennec family of light military helicopters in use with armies and navies for training, reconnaissance and ship-to-shore light transport as well as search and rescue. The Tiger and NH-90 have had their fair share of technical troubles in recent years, but both are now in widespread service with an increasing number of export customers. This is easing the pressure on the prime manufacturing and supply-chain flow as military orders for many of the original European customers are being cut back as austerity measures kick in.


A major exhibitor at Paris will be MBDA, which has become the main European supplier for all types of short, medium and long range missiles. France is a major partner in the group and a new generation of air-to-surface weapons is under development, while today’s major programmes include the ASRAAM and Mica short-range air-to-air missiles, the Meteor beyond-visual-horizon AAM, the Scalp-Storm Shadow stand-off attack missile, MARTE anti-ship missile and the ASTER air defence systems. The new Common Anti-Air Modular Missile (CAAM) has seen a closer relationship develop between MBDA and Thales exploring areas of cooperation across various projects. Work includes assessment and modelling of the thermal management within the new missile family and precision manufacturing to make specialist missile components.

Thales will have a large corporate pavilion at Paris as a major French based defence and aerospace company employing 67,000 employees with a global presence in 50 countries. It is a supplier of advanced radar and avionics systems, including AESA radar and self-defence and electronic warfare systems, both internal and pod mounted. It also supplies flight controls and navigation, surveillance and communications systems, advanced integrated mission computers, cockpits and control cabins and many ground based command and control and air traffic management systems. It will also be displaying at Paris its latest short range missiles and UAV developments.

No doubt the 2013 Paris air show will once again be a showcase for the best that France can offer in aerospace and defence. Defence Review Asia will bring news of the main defence stories and a report on other show highlights in a future issue.


Defence Review Asia at a glance