Like its predecessor in 2008, the new French White Paper on Defense and National Security highlights the need for the French air forces to keep a “forced entry” capability (see here, pages 92 and 96). However vague this phrase might sound, it seems to imply, at some point, the capability to conduct suppression of enemy air defense (SEAD) missions. However, since the decommissioning in 1999 of the French-made anti-radiation missile AS-37 Martel, French air and naval air forces no longer have any dedicated SEAD means. As a matter of fact, it was considered in the late 1990s that any operations involving SEAD would be conducted in coalition – that is, with the US – and that they would provide SEAD means in the opening phase. As we are now looking for the next decade or so, France has to face two major changes in the strategic environment: on one hand, a gradual US withdrawal from Europe and a strategic posture that might not necessarily include SEAD in its service; and on the other hand, a worrying SAM proliferation across the world, including in France’s own backyard (since Algeria purchased SA-20 in 2008 we now have a considerable challenge less than 500 miles from our shores). So, what are actual French SEAD capabilities and are they sufficient?
Self-protection instead of stealth
Unlike the US Air Force, but much more like US Navy and USMC aviation, the French Air Force did not make stealth its paramount capability for penetrating enemy air spaces – for quite obvious budgetary reasons. The main French fighter aircraft, the Rafale, does benefit from a reduced radar cross section (RCS) but can hardly be considered a stealthy plane. Instead, French air forces rely on an electronic warfare suite called SPECTRA, which combines passive radars, laser and infrared detectors, intelligent chaff launchers, infrared flares, and most of all a comprehensive suite of 3 defensive jammers based on an AESA technology.
SPECTRA is a battle-proven and very effective tool, and there is even some evidence that it was the only platform that performed well against an SA-10B during the NATO exercise MACE XIII in April 2012 in Slovakia. Yet it confronted only one SAM system, and experts are quite skeptical about SPECTRA’s performance when facing integrated air defense systems, which means dealing with multiple threats and multiple enemy radars, possibly AESA ones.
Real but limited DEAD capabilities
Of course self-protection is not enough to conduct SEAD operations, nor even to enforce a No-Fly Zone. That is why French air forces need hard-kill, kinetic strike capabilities to take out SAM systems. Thanks to its main air-to-ground guided bomb (A2SM), the French Air Force was able to take out a Libyan SA-3 in the first days of operation Harmattan in March 2011. Here again, SPECTRA is also a key instrument to target SAMs for hard kills as it detects them and transmits the target information to the guidance system. In this case, the range of the A2SM (about 45 km) also allowed the pilot to shoot the SA-3 outside its target engagement ring.
Like self-protection however, these kinds of DEAD capabilities are only relevant against second or third-rate, non-integrated air defense systems that we can take out one by one and with limited range so that the shooter can remain standoff. I doubt the system can hang on for long against double digit-based, digitally integrated air defense systems.
Tactics, maneuver and risk taking
The Libyan air campaign showed some discrepancies between US (and even UK) approaches to SEAD operations and French ones. For instance, as French SIGINT reports indicated that the SA-5s were not operational (as they weren’t indeed), the Air Staff did not « air task » them, concentrating only on SA-3s, SA-6s, and SA-8s. The US, on the contrary did not want to take the chance and considered the SA-5s active until positively destroyed. By the same token, it looks like ruse and craftiness (e.g. using diversions to penetrate SAM rings) are more important in today’s French training than they are in the US (e.g. number of tacticians in a fighter squadron). Because it cannot always afford overwhelming material superiority, the French Air Force sometimes use tactics and maneuver to trump material limitations. This being said, and however much leverage these tactics and maneuvers can generate, it is doubtful that such tricks will, in the end, prove sufficient against modern threats – at least at a reasonable human and material cost.
Is the French way of SEAD sustainable?
To conclude, it seems that the current French way of SEAD is an interesting, cost-effective, and performing tool in some cases, but insufficient in many other. The current trend of SAM proliferation in developing countries will make this model more and more insufficient against first-rate, but also second-rate and even third-rate adversaries. So, is the French way of SEAD sustainable? Yes, if it adapts its capability: this means 1/ maintaining its SIGINT and strengthening its ISR capabilities; 2/ strengthening our existing standoff strike capability (especially by expanding cruise missile stockpiles); 3/ seriously considering developing/buying some means of electronic attack (whether it be traditional antiradiation weapons, modern AESA-based offensive jamming or even ground-breaking cyber-SEAD). Without these three efforts, France will soon find itself unable to conduct any serious « forced entry » missions, whatever the new White Paper might say.