“...Rafale is the best fighter plane in the world” - Air Chief Marshal Denis Mercier
By Claude Arpi
Issue Vol. 29.3 Jul-Sep 2014 | Date : 15 Aug , 2014
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Appointed as the Air Force Chief of Staff (CEMAA) on September 17, 2012, at the age of 53, General Denis Mercier had joined the French Air Force academy in 1979 and qualified as a fighter pilot in 1983. With 182 combat missions and more than 3,000 flying hours (mostly on Mirage F1C and Mirage 2000C) throughout his career, he has acquired extensive experience both as an operational commander and as a fighter pilot. In 2008, he was appointed Commander of the French Air Force Academy in Salon de Provence. Prior to becoming Air Chief, he was posted as a senior Military Advisor in the Ministry of Defence.
Claude Arpi met him on his return from Jodhpur where the Indo-French joint exercises ‘Garuda V’ were being held. That day, General Mercier flew a Sukhoi-30 MKI, while his Indian counterpart, Air Chief Marshal Arup Raha flew a Rafale. Excerpts from the Interview:
…our Air Forces have reached a level of mutual knowledge which, after just one week’s practice, allows them to fly complex missions together in perfect safety.
General, I would like to ask you two sets of questions. First on the Indo-French joint air exercise, Garuda-V which is going on in Jodhpur, Rajasthan and of course, the role of the Rafale in this exercise, and then a few questions on France, the recent White Paper on Defence and National Security, the Defence Multiyear Spending Law (‘Loi de Programmation militaire’) as well as recent operations in Libya and Mali.
Air Chief Marshal Denis Mercier, French Air Force Chief of Staff (CEMAA): Yes, please go ahead.
You are just back from Jodhpur where you took part in the joint air exercise with your Indian counterpart, Air Chief Marshal Arup Raha. You flew the Sukhoi-30 MKI, while Air Chief Arup Raha flew the Rafale. Could you tell our readers what this joint exercise, the fifth of the Garuda series, means for you?
For me, the benefit of such joint exercises is that it allows squadrons, pilots and mechanics from both countries, to continue meeting and working together. From one Garuda exercise to the next – as you just mentioned, this is the fifth edition – we are able to make progress, particularly in the ability to mutually integrate our skills. While touring the ground control centre today, where I followed a mission in real time, I was struck by the deliberate choice made while constituting the opposing formations: it wasn’t a French aircraft pitted against an Indian aircraft, but French and Indian aircraft fighting together against another formation of French and Indian aircraft.
The level of integration that I witnessed today was far better than during earlier Garuda exercises. This is a very significant result, as our respective Air Forces, although very capable, don’t have the opportunity to train together on a daily basis as we do with other European countries. Yet, our Air Forces have reached a level of mutual knowledge which, after just one week’s practice, allows them to fly complex missions together in perfect safety.
IAF’s Air Chief Marshal Arup Raha meets with his French counterpart Air Chief Marshal Denis Mercier in front of Rafale
Do you consider this as an improvement over Garuda-IV? Have some of your pilots already taken part in the previous exercises of Garuda?
I can’t be absolutely sure but I don’t think any of the pilots have already flown together – just a few at best. The aircraft chosen for this exercise were not the same as in the previous editions – as you know, four Rafales are taking part in Garuda-V for the first time. But the lessons learned from the previous exercises have been retained and passed on.
We have now developed great flexibility, which allows us to rapidly integrate the two Air Forces. The excellent level of integration which I have witnessed, achieved after just one week – it is of course still perfectible, which is why we shall continue to hold joint exercises – is, I think, proof of all that we have built on earlier.
We can see that the pilots from both sides are now able to work easily together. We feel that it is important for the future…
Our own tactics have also evolved by taking stock of best practices learned from the Indian Air Force. We can see that the pilots from both sides are now able to work easily together. We feel that it is important for the future: whether it is with India or with other countries, we might have to perform missions with partners with whom we don’t necessarily have opportunities for regular training. It demonstrates our great inherent flexibility.
And then, at the symbolic level – although here we have much more than a symbol – we routinely work with different nations, but the French and Indian Air Forces, more than others, share a common past. I still remember these veteran Indian pilots that I met last year during the Bangalore Air Show. They told me about the “Toofani” (Ouragan), the Mystere IV and the Mirage 2000. This common past resurfaces in today’s experience. It gives our relationship a greater dimension, which we probably don’t experience with other countries, with which we don’t share such a legacy. Because History is always present; it is the foundation of everything.
History yes, but also the future, with the Rafale. The Indian press has announced that the Rafale deal could be signed in 3 months.
This is not for me to say. It is the role of the industry, the Indian Air Force and the Indian Government. As far as I’m concerned, I can tell you about the Rafale at the operational level. This is my role as Chief of Air Staff. I know what we have achieved and what we continue achieving with this aircraft. I know all its qualities, I know what it can provide over and above all other existing operational fighter aircraft, which don’t have the same level of integration for all missions types, which don’t integrate all sensors to the same degree, which don’t mesh with networks the way the Rafale does. I can speak about that, and share the feedback from our own operational experience. The Indian pilots asked our squadron a number of questions about their operational experience. But industrial questions are beyond my competence.
Mid-air Refuelling from an Indian IL-78 to the French Rafale During Exercise Garuda V
Yet, there is great hope that with the present government things will move faster.
I am personally convinced that the Rafale is the best fighter plane in the world. I would therefore be delighted to see other major Air Forces being equipped with the Rafale. This is my take on the issue.
If the ‘deal’ goes through, it means 30 or 40 years of close collaboration between France and India?
Recently, I visited the Thales company to look at future evolutions of the Rafale. For the Rafale, there will be evolutions not only over the next forty years but also in the near future. The possibilities are quite phenomenal with the advent of new technologies, such as Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) radar and others.
…we are certain about is that our aircraft can stand the heat very well, and I am tempted to say, the electronic equipment actually likes the heat.
There, I happened to meet an Indian delegation that was involved in the ongoing Mirage 2000 upgrade. This is a good illustration of the common path we are treading together.
This year, all temperature records have been broken in Jodhpur. Did the heat have an impact on the current Garuda exercise?
I have been asked this question already. In fact, the squadron that we deployed is permanently based in the United Arab Emirates. Therefore, the crew was not daunted by the heat in Jodhpur given their everyday experience. I recently went to Africa, where the temperature also reaches 50 degrees. So, one thing that we are certain about is that our aircraft can stand the heat very well, and I am tempted to say, the electronic equipment actually likes the heat. The only limitation in this regard is the human limit. The risk with these staggering heats is human fatigue. But the equipment has no problem, provided it is adequately shielded.
A few words on the Mirage 2000 upgrade?
Without going into details, I believe that it is progressing well. This is what I gathered from the Indian delegation I mentioned. I could hold a full conference on this topic, because the French Air Force is also going to upgrade some of its own Mirage 2000D, in order to keep them fighting fit beyond 2025, until we replace them with the Rafale. For budgetary reasons, we had to make certain choices, but when I see the upgrade undertaken for the Indian Mirage 2000, I am a bit jealous (smiles). The Indians are doing the modernisation that I would have dreamt of. But we had to curb our ambitions.
Can you envisage other collaborations with India? At a certain stage, for example, it had been considered to develop the engine of the Tejas, the Kaveri, in collaboration…
The French Air Force Rafale aircraft participating in Ex Garuda-V at Jodhpur ready to fly prior an Operational Mission
Our cooperation is well under way at the tactical and operational levels, and has even reached new heights thanks to the Garuda exercises. In Jodhpur, I realised that we had never reached such a high level during previous editions, because we have been building this inter-operability over time, and this feeling was obviously shared by aircrew from both sides. What needs to be done next is a meeting of both Chiefs of Staff. I think it is important. I will invite the Indian Air Chief to see how we can make further progress in our cooperation.
…I have just drawn up a strategic plan for the French Air Force, which lays out our priorities. We discussed this briefly, the Indian Air Force seems to be doing the same and I realise that we certainly have things to share.
We need to sit around a table and exchange our views on the challenges ahead. Following the publication of the French White Paper, I have just drawn up a strategic plan for the French Air Force, which lays out our priorities. We discussed this briefly, the Indian Air Force seems to be doing the same and I realise that we certainly have things to share. Viewing things from this angle; the sharing of our operational experiences and priorities might lead us to consider doing more together, which may also involve an industrial dimension. But our role as Chiefs of Staff is to start by reflecting on the nature of air power within our respective air forces beyond 2020. This will lead us to the rest.
It is an important point for the Indian Government when it decides to purchase 126 combat aircraft. The confidence that you seem to have achieved between the two Air Forces, this inter-operability that you just described, is it a strong argument to help the Government of India take its decision?
It will certainly help. But once again, our role is to ask ourselves whether we have a common vision on a sufficient number of issues, and whether this common vision may translate into further partnership. It is now time for us to consider having a meeting to discuss, as Chiefs of Air Staff, how we see things in the future, in order to move our partnership forward. There definitely is a resolve from my side.
Can you envisage a Navy version of the Rafale?
You are leading me back to equipment, which is not what I’m talking about. For example, in Jodhpur, we were discussing drones; we were sharing views on the organisation of future air operations – tomorrow, not in 2050. As Chief of Staff, it isn’t my role to approach another Air Force and to ask upfront whether we would develop equipment in common. My role is to share our vision of air power required tomorrow, or in the near and distant future, and if we have something to share, then only can we both turn towards our respective governments and tell them we have identified something that we might want to build together.
Do you have a close relation with Air Chief Marshal Raha?
In fact, I met him today for the first time. He has taken over quite recently and we hadn’t yet had a chance to get acquainted. This is also the purpose of this quick visit. It was important for me to attend the Garuda exercise and to see my personnel, but I really wanted to meet my counterpart, to lay a first stone, which would allow us to meet again in future and to see how we can continue to improve together through Garuda. There should be more such exercises, hopefully soon.
It took 10 hours and 40 minutes to reach there and 10 hours and 50 minutes to fly back.
Would this take place in France?
Yes, this is what I will propose.
When would that be?
In two years’ time, I hope. Of course, there can be unforeseeable factors, but in my view, two years is definitely the right pace.
Some questions about France now. What did the French Air Force learn from its latest campaigns in Libya or in Mali?
In my view, the latest campaigns have demonstrated one thing: the first and foremost duty of an Air Force is to be responsive. We already possess this responsiveness through our two permanent missions. The first one is Air Defence, which requires us to react in a matter of minutes to ensure the sovereignty and protection of national airspace. The second is the Nuclear Deterrence mission, which also imposes stringent readiness constraints. It has to be assured according to a permanent alert posture decided by the President of the Republic.
Besides this, in the case of the first operations in Libya we were required to react within 24 hours. We were able to respond at such short notice thanks to our two permanent missions, whose execution implies constantly maintaining several air bases on alert, as well as information systems and command and control centres.
In the Mali operation, in order to stop the jihadists and to prevent them from regrouping and threatening the capital Bamako, we had to react in less than 48 hours. That is why we decided to strike directly from France, with a very long-range raid of almost ten hours of flight and more than 20 targets to strike. We had to do it.
We have also been close to performing other missions at other theatres of operation, each time at very short notice, within just a few hours. When we were asked to provide reassurance by participating in the air policing of the Baltic States, we also responded very quickly.
These operations have taught me one important lesson: I am now looking at ways to continue organising our Air Force so that, in addition to our two permanent missions, we possess this capability for immediate response from our national territory. Because the new capabilities we have today, the tactical and strategic airlift as well as our combat capability, now provide us with the required degree of responsiveness at very long range.
An Air Force with hundreds of aircraft needs capabilities for planning and control, and this will hold true even more in the future.
That is why, during a recent exercise, I wanted the Rafale to be deployed directly from the French mainland to the French Island of La Réunion, over 8,000 km away in the Southern Indian Ocean.
How long was that flight?
It took 10 hours and 40 minutes to reach there and 10 hours and 50 minutes to fly back.
Did you break a record?
Yes, we did. It was not just a long ferry flight; we also performed a simulated strike on the way. I wanted to demonstrate our ability to do this already now. We have also demonstrated our ability to ferry a Fennec helicopter with the new Airbus A400M military transport aircraft to French Guyana (South America) in record time. The A400M has also flown to Djibouti in the Horn of Africa and to Mali in the Sahel-Sahara region of Africa. The one key to all of this is the reorganisation of our air bases so that they can maintain their level of responsiveness, not only for the Air Defence and Nuclear Deterrence missions, but also for Strategic Projection abroad.
In the backdrop of on-going joint (tri-service) reforms, this requires us to reconsider a number of things, in some cases reverting to past concepts, such as actually operating from our air bases to launch air strikes, albeit thousands of kilometres away. The other key element that I wished to demonstrate, and recent operations have proved us right – which is always better – is the Command and Control Centre. Based in Lyon, it controls Air Defence missions over the French homeland, as well as all the operations we are currently conducting in Africa. All missions, whether in France or abroad, are now controlled from Lyon. The planning and control, no matter where the operation is in the world, is undertaken from Lyon in real time. This gives us an unequalled level of responsiveness, which no one else possesses in Europe, and, indeed, elsewhere – apart from the United States.
I really wanted to demonstrate this, and we have succeeded much faster than expected, which gives me great satisfaction. Because this centre is manned for Air Defence, I can ring up tomorrow, or in an hour’s time, and I’m sure to find people there at any time. I can tell them “I want this mission planned” and, whilst carrying on with Air Defence, they will plan a mission thousands of kilometres away. They are able to do this with competent people, who are on the watch round the clock.
Can it be an example for India?
An example, I don’t know, you should ask the Indian Air Force. But when I mentioned this concept they seemed interested, because only very few countries have achieved such a capability. I believe our concept can be of interest to others. I’ve offered the Indian Air Force to come and see for themselves what we’re doing in Lyon.
The Indian Air Force has this required mastery of networks and of managing complex missions, India is therefore absolutely capable of doing the same…
Is it a domain where there could be some collaboration?
Yes, I think so. An Air Force with hundreds of aircraft needs capabilities for planning and control, and this will hold true even more in the future.
We have built up such capability over the last two years. I am very satisfied. In Lyon, in one control room, you have people executing Air Defence 24/7 under the direct authority of the Prime Minister, on the other side of wall, we have the Air Component Command operating under the authority of the Joint Command Post based in N’Djamena, in Chad, and in the room next door, you have a unit which is coordinating intra-theatre Air Transport throughout Africa, operating under the authority of an EU mission whose Operational HQ is based in Greece. It is the same, single set of people who are doing all this, which provides a high level of responsiveness and a great economy of officers. This is a model that we have built, which I like talking about, and I see that others are interested.
Does the use of drones, as you have done in Mali, interest the Indian side?
Yes, I have been asked about our use of drones and our perspectives about their use in the future. There are different types of drones. Those used by our Air Force are the Medium-Altitude Long-Endurance (MALE) type, which can be sent thousands of kilometres away, which can fly 24 hours or more, which are remotely operated through satellites and whose images and data we can receive via satellite. These drones are of interest to Air Forces, as they provide a global and permanent vision of a theatre. But using such drones is complex, it requires mastering the networks. The Indian Air Force has this required mastery of networks and of managing complex missions, India is therefore absolutely capable of doing the same (while other Air Forces would find it more problematic). This is why, although there are still only few MALE drones today, I believe we will see more and more of this type in the future. But being able to operate this type of drone requires a comprehensive mastery of air operations, including the satellite segment. In other words, a certain maturity is needed.
Could you say something about the French White Paper on Defence and on the French multiyear spending law (Loi de Programmation Militaire)?
This White Paper was commissioned by the President of the French Republic after his election. It signals a rather important change, compared to the previous White Paper, with a different budgetary trajectory. All the Chiefs of Staff were involved in its drafting. We were all part of the White Paper Commission, we had a chance to put forward our own concerns. We are very much aware of the budgetary constraints that exist today and that weren’t there five years ago. We have endeavoured to achieve what President Hollande has outlined, but through new principles, which allow us to adjust our actions, particularly in terms of cost, while maintaining the same level of ambition and modernisation, so that we may continue improving in the future.
I personally believe in the qualities of the Rafale, and I would therefore be delighted to see this great Indian Air Force operating the same plane as we do.
This White Paper was translated into the Loi de Programmation Militaire. As far as I’m concerned, I am lucky to have an Air Force which possesses all the capabilities, which are extremely coherent. The choice I made was to maintain this coherence.
This requires a lot of effort, because we simultaneously have to reduce our personnel. We have built this model after accepting these constraints. More than accepting, I have asked the Air Force to embrace the changes unreservedly.
We recently had discussions on these perspectives after the Ministry of Finance asked for additional cuts. In that event, it would have been an altogether new strategy; it would have meant reopening the entire file, and building an altogether different project. It wasn’t possible to build the same project with less funds. It would not have been possible to follow the plan chalked out earlier.
This is what we explained to President Hollande, and a week ago, within the Defence Council, he reaffirmed that the Loi de Programmation Militaire and the level of ambition defined by the White Paper would be maintained. This had to be reaffirmed, so that we know where we are heading and so that we may continue in the direction charted out by the White Paper. As it often happens, we had a serious discussion with the Ministry of Finance, but I am glad that we can now continue on this path.
Which advice or which message would you like to give the Indian Air Force?
I have no advice to give to the Indian Air Force. They have a great Air Force. Two things I would like to tell them: first, we should try to enhance our mutual knowledge, to know each other’s perspectives better, and to develop our cooperation beyond the Garuda exercise and beyond the operational domain. Second and last, I personally believe in the qualities of the Rafale, and I would therefore be delighted to see this great Indian Air Force operating the same plane as we do.
Merci beaucoup, mon general!
Photo Courtesy: Minister of Defence, Government of France
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