PARIS — For the French military, the war in Ukraine has thrown into stark relief the importance of ground-to-air defense, including anti-drone systems, to such an extent that the nation’s top air officer says he expects it to dominate strategic considerations for years.

“The conflict in Ukraine has brought ground-to-air defense back to the very heart of our thinking,” Gen. Stéphane Mille, chief of staff of the French Air & Space Force, told journalists earlier this week, adding that “the fight against drones, notably in preparation for next year’s Paris Olympic Games, is going to keep us busy for years.”

At the time, Mille was speaking a couple of days before the publication of a French Senate Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee report [PDF] on lessons learned from Ukraine in which Senators Cédric Perrin and Jean-Marc Todeschini also stressed that “the next [military program law] must consolidate our ground-to-air defenses and our means to fight drones.”

While the report highlights some of the French security establishments’ specific preoccupations, Mille’s discussion with reporters was wide-ranging, from the lessons from Ukraine to the value of nuclear deterrence, to France’s move towards an all-Rafale fighter jet force. Here are some highlights from both.

Revelations Regarding Anti-Drone Warfare

The daily, creative use of drones in combat may be happening on the other side of Europe, but Paris is taking note. Mille said he expected generally a greater use of drones in the future both in low intensity and high intensity conflict from here on.

The Senate report, likewise, says the “war in Ukraine has confirmed the now preeminent role played by drones, in particular the importance of having moderately priced, remotely-operated munitions considered to a certain degree as consumables just like other munitions. The Ukrainian experience shows that 90 [percent] of drones of this type are lost with an average operational life of between three to six flights.”

According to Senators Perrin and Todeschini the “means to undertake anti-drone warfare are also indispensable.”

Beyond small, “consumable” drones, France has four large, high-dollar MQ-9 Reaper unmanned air vehicle (UAV) systems in its inventory. Each system contains three Reaper aircraft, so there are 12 drones total based on the Cognac air base. Half of those have been upgraded to Block 5, which significantly improves intelligence-gathering in real time from the Block 1 standard.

Citing the nature of the fighting in Ukraine, the Senate report calls into question the usefulness of exquisite drone systems like the Reaper, known as medium altitude long endurance or MALE unmanned aerial vehicles.

Mille said the air force is examining ways they could be effectively used, but conceded they are “very useful in asymmetrical wars but given their vulnerability and their cost, they would be difficult to exploit in a symmetrical context” like when two modern armies fight each other.

Simulated Training For Complex Air Missions

Defense against drone warfare feeds into the larger mission of ground-to-air defense, which Mille said was a crucial aspect for another pillar of French defense: nuclear deterrence. France must be able to control its airspace so it can get nuclear weapons-carrying aircraft in the air.

According to the Senate report, the conflict in Ukraine demonstrates that the “nuclear deterrent is the ultimate guarantee of a nation’s security and independence,” but warns that this should not justify a lesser effort in conventional warfare.

For the time being, however, “our sovereignty relies on the air force’s ‘Permanent Posture of Security’,” Mille explained. This PPS is in fact three missions in one: detecting, identifying and intervening 24/7 to ensure the sovereignty of French air space.

The detection element, Mille said, would be renewed thanks to new radars, amongst other things. New tech is also expected to help, including the new ASN4G missile (air-sol nucléaire quatrième génération or 4th generation air-to-ground nuclear) which is expected to replace the ASMPA-R (air-sol moyenne portée amélioré rénové or upgraded improved air-to-ground midde-range) missile in about 2035.

Beyond nuclear deterrence and helping to fight potential conventional wars, the French air force also is charged with protecting the air space for major events such as the Bastille Day celebration on July 14 and next year’s Olympics.

“We have to be able to do all of this in parallel,” Mille said.

To do so, Mille said, a “huge effort” was being made to “prepare our teams for the most complex operations,” notably through simulation.

And this does not mean just sitting in a cockpit simulator but networking all simulators and mixing the virtual world with the real so that, for example, a pilot really flying a real aircraft could be given a simulated mission to undertake in parallel with virtual partners or enemies, for example.

Moving To An All-Rafale Fleet

During the discussion, Mille also noted France’s move to an all-Rafale fighter jet fleet, one of the more surprising announcements by French President Emmanuel Macron last month.

The Air & Space Force took delivery last December of its first Rafale since 2018. Another 40 will be delivered by 2025, of which 13 are expected this year. These aircraft are slowly replacing the Mirage 2000s still in the French inventory so that, just as the LPM sets out, the Air & Space Force will have an all-Rafale fleet of 185 aircraft by the middle of the 2030s when the last Mirage 2000-Ds are retired. Of the 63 currently still flying, 55 are or will be modernized to keep them operational until then.

The Mirage 2000-Cs, single-seater aircraft used for the PPS mission, stopped flying last June “but some still have a bit of potential and so could be sold,” Mille said, though he didn’t say which countries would be buying. He suggested they’d be likely used “for spare parts.”

However, even before Ukrainian President Volodymr Zelensky’s visited to Paris this week, the air force was considering the feasibility of giving these aircraft to Ukraine. But, just like any other military equipment delivered to Ukraine, four criteria will be borne in mind: a request specifically made by Ukraine; that does not escalate the conflict; that helps the resistance but cannot touch Russian ground; and that does not enfeeble the French armed forces.

After Russia’s Invasion, A ‘Change Of Mindset’

This transition to an all-Rafale fleet will keep the Air & Space Force “agile”, Mille said.

That’s a “key word” more broadly for the French military, according to the Senate report. It notes that the “closed, centralized, vertical” model of the armed forces “is outdated,” and says that one of the great strengths of the Ukrainians is their capacity to “integrate military capabilities with civilian ones” and that “good ideas can come from the summit or the base, from the military world or the civilian world: what is important is to know how to spot them.”

That agility is necessary in strategic thinking as well. The senatorial report points out that, with hindsight, the Russian war against Ukraine “is not a real surprise, strategically speaking. All the information was available.”

The problem, it says, was that the “interpretation by intelligence agencies failed. Our cognitive biases led us to overestimate the probability of hypotheses based on our own rationality and to neglect others.” It suggests that “an important effort is thus needed in the field of intelligence gathering sensors and our analyses.”

But speaking to the bigger picture, the report demands the French government “change [its] mindset: the era of ‘the dividends of peace’ is over. Democracies and authoritarian regimes have different ways of evaluating the costs/benefits of a war.”