“Our objective is to reach 185 Rafale combat aircraft by 2030”

It was almost two years ago. February 24, 2022, the day of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. “Six hours after NATO’s request, our planes were at the border with Ukraine,” recalls Lieutenant General (GCA) Laurent Lherbette. This is proof that the Air and Space Force (AAE) is a responsive army. But everything is moving faster and faster, taking into account hazards in the world must be done almost within 24 hours, and we need to be even faster in our decision-making. »

An observation which led the Air Force to very recently reorganize its chain of command. General Laurent Lherbette thus took the head of the new Territorial Command of the Air and Space Force (CTAAE), based in Bordeaux. “An implementation command which links decisions and their application on the ground with the air bases,” summarizes the general.

After seeing its number of bases, planes, and personnel decline for twenty years, today, “things are changing. » “With the ongoing war in Ukraine, we have changed paradigm,” analyzes the general. The armies were allocated 413 billion euros during the last 2024-2030 military programming law; it had been a long time since they had obtained such an envelope. There is a desire to increase our stocks, to do what is necessary so that this tool [les bases] can be used at 150% of its capacity. » Receipt of new Rafales, screenings abroad, increasingly imposing military exercises… 20 minutes swept with General Laurent Lherbette, and General Laurent Charrier, Deputy General “Defense Security”, the major challenges facing the 25 air bases located in mainland France, 19 of which depend on the new CTAAE.

Integrate new Rafale fighters

The order for 42 Rafales from the French State for the benefit of the Air Force for 5 billion euros, announced on January 12, did not go unnoticed. It follows an order at the start of 2021 for 12 Rafale F4 standard aircraft, intended to replace those sold second-hand to Greece.

General Laurent Lherbette, new territorial commander of the Air Force, at BA106 in Mérignac, near Bordeaux. – Mickaël Bosredon

“We have around a hundred Rafales and a little less Mirage 2000 [94 selon les chiffres de l’AAE], it’s not that much, believes General Lherbette. The Air Force’s objective is to reach 185 Rafale-type combat aircraft by 2030, to which must be added the forty Rafale aircraft from naval aviation. Little by little, we are therefore going to replace the Mirage 2000s with new generation Rafales, which we began to receive in 2023.” To accommodate these aircraft, a new Rafale squadron will be created in Orange (Vaucluse) “by end of 2024.” It will complement the three fighter squadrons of Mont-de-Marsan (Landes), where around forty Rafales are positioned at BA 118, and the three squadrons of BA 113 of Saint-Dizier (Haute-Marne), where the two nuclear deterrent squadrons making up the Strategic Air Forces.

Participate in increasingly important exercises

90,000 soldiers, 80 planes and 1,100 combat vehicles… NATO announced on January 18 the launch these days of a vast military exercise, called “Steadfast Defender”, the most important “in decades”. decades.” “NATO had to return to this type of exercise, because it had been a long time since it had done so, nor demonstrated this common defense capacity,” analyzes General Laurent Lherbette. France will take its part, our bases will be there, as they were in 2023 for the Orion exercise. It had been twenty-five years since we had carried out an exercise with so many personnel deployed. It is a change of scale which is part of the strategic signal: before, we did training to raise our level, now, it is also a deterrent act. The credibility of your military tool depends on its ability to dissuade your adversary from coming for you. »

French bases are also increasingly looking abroad to carry out several types of missions. “We have identified, at NATO level, bases which would be able to receive small, fast and very mobile French detachments, with the smallest possible logistical footprint. »

Strengthen the defense of air bases

Deputy General “Defense Security”, Brigadier General Laurent Charrier is responsible for ensuring the defense of French air bases. “I have to ensure that everyone has the appropriate device to deal with the threat facing them,” he summarizes. Twenty years ago, we benefited from the dividends of peace and were still serene, then there was 2015 and the terrorist attacks, and we rediscovered what this terrorist threat was on the national territory, and that defense- Security was a real imperative for our military installations. »

Among these protean threats, drones are closely monitored. “Even if it is not the most dangerous currently, for me, it is the threat likely to evolve the most quickly” analyzes General Laurent Charrier. “With the proliferation of drones that can be purchased commercially, we are indeed experiencing a certain number of overflights of our bases. Even if, in the vast majority of cases, these are people who do not know that they should not be there. » If it is therefore appropriate “not to exaggerate this threat”, a set of measures to combat drones is now integrated. There are of course the drone jamming guns, “but also more complex means allowing a detection perimeter and wider ranges of action, particularly when operating “special aviation security devices.” » These are temporary “protection bubbles” put in place during special events, which will be the case during the next Paris Olympics this summer.

Ensuring the sky police

The air policing mission (provided by the Air Defense and Air Operations Command, CDAOA) is one of the “permanent postures” of the Air Force. “All our squadrons, except the Mirage 2000-D, participate in this 24-hour mission,” explains General Laurent Lherbette. It involves going to the rescue of a small tourist plane in difficulty, or carrying out a check when a plane no longer responds to the radio and leaves its flight plan…” On January 13, for example, a twin-engine aircraft which was carrying out a flight over La Rochelle noted a failure of its landing gear. After giving the alert, a first Rafale from Mont-de-Marsan takes off “to carry out an identification and remove doubt”, before being joined by a second fighter, which carries out a flight assistance mission and accompanies the ‘device. The latter finally managed to land, without landing gear and without incident, in Rochefort.

Helicopters, “equipped with precision shooters and the ability to communicate visually with small tourist planes” also participate in the sky police. Nearly 900 takeoffs took place in 2023 in this context.

Reduce the carbon footprint

When we know that a Rafale carries between 4.7 tonnes and 6.7 tonnes of fuel, that its autonomy (without refueling) can go up to 3h15 maximum, and that the hour of flight costs around 20,000 euros, we do not can’t say that it rhymes with ecology. However, “we are also faced with the challenges of reducing fuel consumption” assures General Laurent Lherbette.

“We cannot make the Rafale consume less, and it is not going to become electric overnight, but we can make it consume differently, in particular by adding up to 20 to 25% of organic additive. » No more, “so as not to reduce its operational capabilities. » On the other hand, there is no question – especially in the current international context – of reducing its activity. “The crews need to master this combat beast in its environment,” insists General Lherbette. If we reduce our activity, there will inevitably be effects on the operational level of our crews. »

The Air Force also emphasizes having “reduced the consumption by four” of its training aircraft, by replacing its old alphajets with Pilatus PC21 turboprops. “Simulation also contributes to the training of pilots without consuming” points out the general.

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