Inside The ‘Laboratory Of Premieres’ For French Air Power

By Murielle Delaporte

PARIS: A just-completed French training effort involving a number of high-end capabilities has helped prove out new technologies and concepts that will be vital to operations in the Pacific and elsewhere, France’s top Air Force officer tells Breaking Defense.

The Heifara-Wakea event, which wrapped up July 7 with coordinated training between French Rafales and American F-22s operating out of US Pacific Air Force Command’s Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam in Hawaii, was a rousing success, according to Gen. Philippe Lavigne, the Chief of French Air and Space Force (FASF).

The event’s capstone was not the first time the two jets have coordinated training. But the sheer scale and scope of the effort — which included 170 French pilots, flying crews, maintainers and support and logistics specialists, operating three Rafale fighters, two A400M transport aircrafts and one A330 Multi Role Transport Tanker (MRTT) — represented something special, Lavigne said.

“There has been tremendous progress between the two Air Forces in the past years as not only do we train together in increasingly complex scenarios, but we are fighting together whether in the Middle East, the Sahel or in operations such as Hamilton in Syria in 2018,” he told Breaking Defense while traveling back from the Pacific.

Being able to conduct a joint air operation such as the 2018 Syria campaign is not something one should take for granted in the modern threat environment, Lavigne stressed.

‘’There can only be cooperation if there is a true will to cooperate,” he said. “This determination between our two Air Forces have been constantly growing and translates itself today into more and more information sharing, the insertion of active threats in ever more complex exercises and live monitoring and debrief. Today US and French Aviators share the same planning room and the end result can be seen in the skies.”

Challenges of course remain, including one area where Lavigne sees clear need for improvement: ‘’We will not be able to win in the air, nor on the ground or in the seas for that matter, if we do not integrate multidomain capabilities, such as space and cyber.”

Such integration was one of the key focus of this two-part French mission, known as “Heifara-Wakea,” which started in France’s Mont-de-Marsan on June 20th. Over the course of the exercise, French pilots flew two sorties a day and held a readiness rate close to 100%.

The effort started with a long-range training raid from the French main land to Tahiti, which lasted 39 hours (i.e. 9 hours less than initially planned) with only one stop in Travis, California. The raid therefore included a 12 hour trip, which was the longest non-stop Rafale flight ever performed by the French military. It was also the first time such a large number of air assets visited French Polynesia, and the first time that the newest and the most upgraded air assets made the trip: the Rafales came with the Meteor long range missile and the newest AESA radar, the MRTT equipped with the latest L16-JRE (Joint Extension Range) data link and the A400M with a new Maritime Search and Rescue capability.

Lavigne called the effort a “laboratory of Premieres’’ before noting that the training event is a precursor for a 2023 mission that plans to project 20 Rafales and 10 MRTTs 20,000 KM from France, within a 48 hour window.

One of the interesting ‘’firsts’’ that has proven out during the exercise was the testing of the brand new French Air Operation Center, which was recently inaugurated in Lyon. Called CAPCO (for ‘’Centre Air de planification et de conduite des opérations’’), the new center was able to order and coordinate an in-depth Scalp strike right upon the arrival of the squadron in Tahiti in a simulated heavily defended anti-access, area denial scenario.

Using the MRTT as a forward C2 asset and a CAPCO relay nod is part of the revolution and the path towards the Future Combat Air System and the new collaborative air warfare doctrine, which is currently being written. As Lavigne noted, CAPCO must be understood in the dual context of the French Air and Space Force command of the NATO Reaction Force in 2022 and of the arrival of the new ACCS (Air Command and Control System) in NATO.

Heifara-Wakea’s purpose, Lavigne said, was three fold. First, to protect “French citizens in our overseas departments and collectivities as well as our interests in the Indo-pacific region in general.” Second, to demonstrate the type of operational credibility needed in high end conflicts. And third, to cooperate with allies in the Pacific and to defend “in particular our freedom of navigation and our right to fly in this increasingly competitive part of the world.”

The cooperation with allies was on full display at the closing event of the exercise, on July 9, when top French and American air officers were joined by Philippe Etienne, the French ambassador to the United States, for the commemoration of the 240th anniversary of the 1781 Revolutionary War victory at Yorktown.

The same day, in Washington D.C., a new roadmap to reinforce an already strong cooperation between US and French special forces was signed by the US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and his French counterpart, Florence Parly.

This article was published by Breaking Defense on July 12, 2021.