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General Laurent Rataud: "Air defence is consubstantial with the ambition of sovereignty".

At this week's presentation of the capabilities of the French Air Force (AAE), Air Force Lieutenant General Laurent Rataud, Commander of Air Defence and Air Operations, explains the importance and missions of the AAE in French diplomacy and allied cooperation.
Le Général Laurent Rataud

A former fighter pilot who served in Iraq, the Balkans, Afghanistan and Africa, Lieutenant General Laurent Rataud has a total of 3,800 flying hours and 251 war missions. Commander of Air Defence and Air Operations (CDAOA) since 1 September 2023, he was previously, among other things, Deputy Head of Plans and Programmes on the AAE staff and Deputy Commander of the Special Operations Command. Explaining the concepts of air policing and air diplomacy, he talks to IHEDN about the operational involvement of the AAE in French foreign policy.

Where did the Sky Police come from?

First of all, it should be remembered that the term "air policing" is an expression given to the permanent air security posture mission. This expression comes from the fact that we are responsible for monitoring, detecting, identifying and sometimes intercepting violators of the rules of the air or any aircraft representing a threat to national interests. And we shouldn't forget that airmen are also "the firemen of the sky", in the sense that we also provide assistance to aircraft in distress. Dozens of lives are saved every year.

Another semantic clarification is necessary. Sky policing", or "permanent air security posture", is a peacetime term that belongs to the much broader field of "air defence", often equated with wartime. Be that as it may, behind the terms "air policing" or "air defence" lies one and the same idea: that of ensuring compliance with international conventions, but above all with France's sovereignty over its airspace.

Considering that air defence is consubstantial with the ambition of sovereignty, it was at the end of the Second World War that the first principles were laid down. Armed with the trauma of the French campaign and the experience gleaned from the Anglo-Saxon air forces, political and air force decision-makers wanted to restore national sovereignty in mainland France as quickly as possible, from the end of 1944. On 20 January 1945, General de Gaulle signed the decree creating the air defence command. This was the founding act of French sovereignty in the third dimension.

HOW DOES IT FIT IN WITH FRENCH AIR DIPLOMACY?

Today, French air defence is part of French air diplomacy in two ways: cooperative diplomacy and coercive diplomacy.

The first aims to cooperate in several ways. For much of the Cold War, since France's withdrawal from the Atlantic Alliance's integrated command in 1966 to be precise, even though air defence remained a national concern, agreements were signed to maintain the exchange of intelligence between NATO's air detection system, Nadgeand its French equivalent, STRIDA.

Furthermore, to believe that a national air defence system can be effective on its own is pure fantasy that does not stand up to scrutiny for a single second. We need strategic depth if we are to succeed in our mission of policing the skies or air defence. This is what our neighbouring allies offer us, and what we offer them. In 1972, France began signing intergovernmental air defence agreements with all its neighbours. For example, on the basis of reciprocity, an aircraft from a given country policing the skies can pursue an active air security measure in the skies over another country before national resources take over. French air defence is also an instrument of sovereignty that is exported for the benefit of our foreign policy. Other countries place their trust in the excellence of the French Air Force and French Space Agency by delegating all or part of the exercise of their sovereignty. The example of the defence cooperation treaty with Djibouti is remarkable in this respect. Air defence is at the heart of this diplomatic relationship, since the AAE is responsible for ensuring this country's air sovereignty in return for access to the strategic point that is the Horn of Africa.

The second facet concerns coercive air diplomacy: the main uses of air defence lie in the establishment and surveillance of No Fly Zones or Air Exclusion Zones (AEZs). In operational terms, the creation of a No Fly Zone consists of offensively acquiring and defensively maintaining air superiority over a given territory. This has been referred to as the concept of "air occupation", a kind of transposition of the occupation of a territory by a ground force. Politically, an AEZ can be used either to contain the level of violence in a conflict in a given area, or as a measure of military coercion to change an adversary's attitude.

Of the four AEZs created to date, a distinction is made between AEZs that have been imposed by one state on another, such as those established by the United States in Iraqi airspace in 1991 and 1992, and AEZs that have been explicitly established by a United Nations Security Council resolution, such as those in Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1992 and Libya in 2011. The AAE took part in each of these AEZs with operations Alysse (Southern Watch) from 1992 to 2003, Aconit (Provide Comfort and Northern Watch) from 1991 to 1996, Kestrel (Deny Flight) from 1993 to 1995 and Harmattan (Unified Protector) in 2011. This gives France "activable" tools in the diplomatic balance of power.

DOES THIS AIR DIPLOMACY ONLY WORK WITHIN ALLIED ORGANISATIONS SUCH AS NATO?

It works naturally with NATO. Firstly, because NATO is the first to monitor threats or provocations of a military or unknown nature, particularly those carried out by Russia. Secondly, because some countries have placed their air defence resources under NATO command. French air defences can therefore interact with air defences under foreign national command as well as under NATO command.

BEEN STRENGTHENED SINCE THE WAR IN UKRAINE? CAN YOU GIVE CONCRETE EXAMPLES OF ACTIONS TAKEN IN THIS CONTEXT?

It has of course been strengthened, as the context demands. First of all, there are the air defence missions of French forces within NATO with :

  • A permanent MAMBA ground-air defence detachment deployed at Capu Midia in Romania since May 2022, providing round-the-clock protection for the Mihail Kogalniceanu air base.1940.

 

  • Sky policing missions or Enhanced Air Policing (eAP). This involves the deployment of 4 fighters with air-to-air capability in the Baltic States to police the skies. France used to honour a 4-month mandate every two years, and is now responsible for one mandate a year. The next deployment will take place in Lithuania from December 2023 to March 2024 and will be armed by 4 Mirage 2000-5s.

 

  • Reinforcement missions or Reinforcement ".  The AAE regularly carries out air missions with NATO nations under the command of AIRCOM. Following the invasion of Ukraine, Rafale, tanker and E-3F aircraft patrolled the borders of allied countries from France. These border surveillance missions gradually evolved into surveillance missions (E-3F) and international training.

 

On this last point, and to give an idea of the responsiveness and know-how of the AAE, I would like to point out that just six hours after the invasion of Ukraine, Rafale fighter jets, tanker aircraft and an AWACS were taking off towards the Ukrainian-Polish border. We had to ensure that Alliance airspace remained under control and demonstrate our resolve in the face of this unjustifiable act. These initial missions carried out under national control were subsequently transferred to NATO without any difficulty. This capability is the result of our day-to-day cooperation with the Atlantic Alliance and of ongoing in-depth work to nurture our exchanges at all levels. Here again, French air defence is fulfilling its role as an instrument of foreign policy and inter-allied cooperation.