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.
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.
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…
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.