LAURENT COLLET-BILLON

Age: 62

Education: Ecole Nationale Superieur de l'Aeronautique et de l'Espace

Career: Started with DGA in Bordeaux in 1974 as an armaments engineer, working his way through a number of program management positions and serving as adviser to former French Defense Minister Andre Giraud. In 2001, became deputy director of DGA, and later represented France at l'Organisation Conjointe de Cooperation en Matiere d'Armement (Occar). In 2006, worked for Alcatel as a defense consultant before being appointed to lead DGA in 2008.

Five months after France intervened against Islamist rebels in Mali—and only one month since President Francois Hollande issued an updated national security strategy in the new Livre Blanc, or White Book—Laurent Collet-Billon is helping put the finishing touches on a forthcoming military program law, or LPM, that will set French defense spending through 2019. With €179 billion ($233 billion) over the next six years, the plan means Collet-Billon, head of the French procurement agency DGA, has less money to continue investments in the nation's core defense technologies—aeronautics, nuclear deterrence and electronics—while maintaining R&D spending at levels necessary to retain high-tech skills that give French industry a competitive edge. Collet-Billon spoke with AW&ST Paris Bureau Chief Amy Svitak last week at the DGA headquarters outside of Paris.

AW&ST: What changes do you anticipate to the LPM?

Collet-Billon: Budget constraint was a major driver of the new White Book on defense and national security, and for the subsequent LPM. Because we intend to maintain critical skills and a high level of competence in our industrial sectors, as well as our nuclear deterrence, we have to be clever. It is the choice of President Hollande and Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian that our research and development budget remain strong over the course of the LPM. So while we will decrease the total quantity of [hardware] we produce, we will not decrease the number of armament programs. That means we have nearly 15 programs that will end during the LPM, and we are introducing 15-20 new programs now, across all defense sectors.

How do you see the French air force Mirage and Rafale fleets evolving?

The Mirage F1 and the SEM (Super Etendard Modernis) will be withdrawn from service by 2020, after which Rafale will be operated together with a life-extended Mirage 2000-5 and retrofitted M2000D to meet the operational requirements as newly defined by the Livre Blanc. The next step will be in 2030, when the M2000-5/N/D is scheduled to be withdrawn from the combat aircraft fleet. For now, we want to use the M2000D efficiently. Air superiority is needed, but that is not the job of the Mirage 2000D today. We want to make it a multipurpose aircraft. For Rafale, we have the F3 standard. Then the F3R will enter a four-year development stage, beginning early next year. One of the main priorities involves development and integration of a new-generation targeting pod. This standard maintains cutting-edge penetration capabilities, including full integration of the Meteor missile, and it maintains the industrial skills we will need to upgrade and operate Rafale in the longer term.

How is the Rafale's new AESA [active, electronically scanned array] radar working out?

It is a game-changer. The first AESA is in service now. And we are very happy to be the first in Europe to have this kind of radar after the Americans. Meteor is fitted for this radar, and we are confident it will deliver outstanding results.

Will there be an F4 standard?

We are planning to have the F4 standard after 2020. By the end of this decade, the development could be launched. The technical perimeter is not frozen, but research and feasibility studies have been initiated. The main priorities include new radar modes to take advantage of the full capabilities of the new RBE2 AESA, and the upgrade of Thales's Spectra defensive-aid system for operations in high-density environments, as well as integration of new or upgraded weapons. After the 2030s, for the 2040 timeframe, there will be a capability need for future combat aircraft systems (FCAS) that means FCAS likely will be a mix of upgraded Rafale and an unmanned combat air system (UCAS). That means we probably need a midlife upgrade for Rafale.

What mix of manned and unmanned fighters will you fly?

We are studying many hypotheses: Maybe Rafale can fly with more than one UCAS. For example, one Rafale flying with four UCAS.

What is the status of Anglo-Franco cooperation on an unmanned combat air vehicle (UCAV) by BAE Systems and Dassault Aviation?

Our top priority for the UCAV road map is the French-British collaboration. A first major milestone, after the current risk-reduction studies, will be the launch of a first phase of an FCAS demonstration program as early as next year. It is not very expensive, and it is a necessity. After the demo, at the end of 2015, we have to set new contracts. Before 2020 we have to have worked out what we can afford and what we can technologically achieve. We do not want to make dreams; we want to develop an effective system.

How does the DGA/Dassault Neuron UCAV demo fit with this?

We and our British friends will share the results from Neuron test flights and from the BAE Systems Taranis, when it flies. We intend to have a common specification on a common development and a common view on each part of the future demonstrator, which should fly before the end of the decade. For Neuron we just finished a test sequence for RCS (radar cross-section) at the DGA information superiority center near Rennes. The results are very good. It shows progress is attainable, with no extraordinary effort on the financial side. The Neuron will fly this year, after Le Bourget, in Sweden and in Italy.

What other aircraft programs are underway?

We will do a major midlife upgrade for the Atlantic 2. As we saw in Mali, it is useful to have some multipurpose assets—it is like a Swiss pocketknife. We will keep the platform and the engines, but we will have new radars, new anti-submarine systems, new sonars, new sonobuoys and new optical systems.

What about the new Multirole Transport Tanker (MRTT)?

We just received this month a proposal from EADS-Airbus Military and we are perusing it. This will not be a public financing initiative (PFI) because we require some flexibility and adaptability throughout the life of the contract. We have a need for air-to-air refueling, which is urgent. But the fact is we intend to develop the air-to-air refueling initiative in Europe.

Through the European Defense Agency?

We have to discuss that with other countries—the Netherlands, Germany, Poland, among others. We are also looking at the NATO initiative. But we intend to have the first MRTT in 2018. We hope to have a contract by the end of the year, if the EADS proposal is good.

What are you doing in the area of military space?

We are going to improve our intelligence capabilities. Of course there will be new observation satellites after Helios II, a program called CSO is planned for the end of 2016. We intend to make a proposal to other countries in Europe for this type of system. And we intend also to develop what we call Ceres, an electronic-warfare constellation of four small satellites based on the Elisa demonstrator, which is excellent. That would be before 2020.

What about a PFI for next-generation milsatcom?

I do not know. Long-duration rent for the satellites is interesting. A company could provide us satellites and we could rent them for 10-15 years. They can also provide civilian services. Many companies can do that. It could be a very interesting competition with Eutelsat, Astrium, SES, Intelsat and, of course, Thales. But we are going to build new assets because we need a more evolved generation for specific military requirements. Anti-jamming, for example. We also need wide-band for intelligence, for video, for the welfare of the soldiers, and we do not intend to have a fully protected signal for that.

Will France build new military telecommunications satellites?

Continuity of service with Syracuse is sought. We need to replace Syracuse before 2020. It is coming very quickly. A defense core will be developed for our specific requirements for sure. We have to be clever because we know the needs of the British Defense Ministry; the Italian defense ministry is not on the same timescale. So we need a road map that other countries in Europe can agree upon.

What is the strategy for a medium-altitude, long-endurance (MALE) drone in France?

We are making progress. We sent the U.S. Air Force a letter of request, and we are awaiting the letter of acceptance. This is for a short-term delivery of two vehicles before the end of this year, followed by more operational systems of three vehicles each before 2020. And those first vehicles could be delivered by something like 2016.

Will you extend the Harfang UAV program?

Yes, we intend to extend the Harfang until 2016. We are waiting for a proposal from EADS on that subject.

Are you able to put European weapons or sensors on these Reaper drones to “Frenchify” them?

We have to combine two things: We need systems quickly and we want them to fly European technology, because this is what is needed for some specific operational requirements. But our first priority is time.

EDITOR'S NOTE: This article was changed to correct the spelling of French President Francois Hollande's name.