In many nations across the globe, the military has long been characterized by honor, fairness and steadfast loyalty. This may still be the case but the military landscape is changing. As countries continue to develop and adopt pioneering technologies for their military and high-performance combat aircraft for their Air Forces, it has become increasingly challenging for Nations to differentiate themselves. Where and how can they add value to create exceptional armed forces? What criteria must be applied to adequately prepare the soldiers of tomorrow?
Improving aircraft, missiles, submarines, and so on may feel like the obvious answer but their value rests on an important question: what sorts of conflicts is a nation likely to face in the future? Understanding where threats will come from in the coming years and decades is one of the most acute challenges facing the armed forces worldwide.
Meeting the challenge of the unknown
For industries of all kinds, determining what will happen tomorrow and beyond can feel like jumping into the void. This is especially true for the defense industry, where lives can depend on one’s predictions regarding current and future armed conflicts. We cannot always count on having the time we need to analyze and strategize to find success.
The modern world is facing threats from new quarters with new weapons. We hear about new threats daily on the news. From coordinated cyberattacks to suicide bombers, armed insurgencies, and viruses, keeping a nation secure can appear almost impossible. Moreover, not only must we learn how to successfully resist those threats we are aware of, but we must also remain ever-vigilant for the emergence of new threats of which we may currently be entirely unaware. We know that the next war will be digital. It will only be won by mastering information and secured communications. The combat cloud will characterize this new dimension of war, integrating conventional combat and associated forces.
Thus, how to conquer and defeat from the Air ? “Faire Face”, in 2 words, this message reveals the fundamentals of the mindset of aviators. As the motto of Capitaine Guynemer engraved on the wall of the prestigious Ecole de l’Air et de l’Espace, whatever the threat in a very changing warfare theater : Face it.
Giving the means to the fighter’s of tomorrow, whatever their speciality, here is the real challenge of the new École de l’Air et de l’Espace.
France’s future combatants receive a new command
On July 1, 2020, I had the honor of visiting the Salon-de-Provence (BA 701) famous French Air Base Airport and meeting Major General Dominique Arbiol, the new head of France’s Ecole de l’Air et de l’Espace.
Major General Arbiol is the first woman to ever be awarded this prestigious position but she has long been a trailblazer for women in the military. In 1983, Major General Arbiol became the first female to be accepted into the preparatory class of « L’Ecole des Pupilles de l’Air ». When she ultimately did not gain admission to the school, she changed direction and enlisted as a non-commissioned officer before going on to become a navigation and weapon systems mechanic or what would now be referred to as an avionics mechanic.
In 1989, Major General Arbiol sat the highly competitive entrance exam for the Ecole militaire de l’Air to train as an active officer with a specialty in intelligence. She succeeded and became Major Arbiol, participating in several foreign operations in the early 1990s. In 1993, she began her career as an intelligence officer before then entering the Joint Operational Planning Staff (EMIA-PO) in Creil in 1998. A few years later in 2004, Major General Arbiol was appointed Chief of Operations at the Joint Imagery Training and Interpretation Center (CF3I) and in 2008 she took command of the Military Satellite Observation Center in Creil. In 2010, she drew on her vast experience to contribute to the creation of the Joint Space Command.
Major General Arbiol then made the move to Paris to continue her career with the French Armed Forces General Staff. Notably, she was head of the Inter-allied Cooperation and Planning Office between 2014 and 2017 and was promoted to Brigadier General in 2017, since which time she has been in charge of the cross-functional work of the General Staff. Before leading the L’Ecole de l’Air et de l’Espace, Major General Arbiol was Deputy Chief Executive Officer at Air Force Headquarters. She is an officer of the Legion of Honor and the National Order of Merit.
I was thrilled to meet with this highly accomplished, dedicated military professional who has excelled as a loyal soldier of the France nation. Major General Arbiol is the epitome of the core values of the armed forces, such as resilience, discipline, and devotion.
Preparing the next generation of soldiers for the next generation of conflicts
When I first encountered Major General Arbiol, I was immediately impressed by her composure and confidence. She struck me as a determined and strong individual whose impeccable posture suggested a hard-working nature. As I learned about her career, I learned the story of a woman defined by a desire to serve her country without the need for recognition and the commitment and courage to pursue her ambitions and cross paths that had never been crossed before. Her self-possessed expression spoke to me of resilience against adversity, a hard-won optimism, and respect for tradition. Major General Arbiol has successfully broken the gender barrier to become the first female head of the L’Ecole de l’Air et de l’Espace, thanks in large part to her consummate professionalism and ability to confront a challenge. Despite her delicate face, we can guess the past marked by hard work sustained by the will to get there no matter what. What strength, what a beautiful soul are hidden deep in Dominique.
If 2020 and 2021 have taught us anything, it is the importance of resilience and being able to adapt to meet the difficulties that life can throw at us. Our emotions can be debilitating, crippling us with fear, or we can reach inside ourselves to find the strength to move forward. It is these reserves of strength and valor that Major General Arbiol encapsulates and that we will need in the next generation of soldiers.
Elon Musk recently proclaimed that “the era of fighter jets is over,” saying he believed automated drone warfare was the future. At the same time, however, we are seeing the development of new generation aircraft. Whether they are piloted from the cockpit, or remotely piloted, both types of aircraft will exist and associated pilots will be needed. In all cases, high performance crews will play a more important role in future air warfare.
The most powerful Air Forces in terms of assets will certainly invest in more advanced technologies, so that bigger changes can be expected. However, according to the greatest specialists, a human presence on board remains in any case vital for certain missions for which humans are still irreplaceable.
The choices that will define the armed forces of tomorrow
When national governments seek to address their defense and security needs, they must establish an agreed-upon strategic assessment of the character and scale of the threats they face. Only in this way can they hope to identify the strategic capabilities that may help them to avert future threats. However, the return of great-power competition or state-on-state aggression is renewing the focus on how military capability should be evaluated.
Major General Arbiol highlighted the fact that “Educating the Human, the Critical Element, that’s the secret of the future C2 (Command and Control)”. Truly, we tend to forget that in complement of the organization and technology, our Airmen are the ones executing the control and especially the distributed control. “They are the ultimate source of our combat capabilities. Experienced and knowledgeable, they must be trained and experienced to acquire knowledge, creativity and willingness to overcome ever more complex and ever more dynamic challenges. That’s what their Nation expects from them.”
Historically, aviators have been known for their air-mindedness. Creative and highly adaptive they are capable of rapidly making bold and smart decisions. That’s also the foundation of the trust shared by Airmen which underpins their ability to understand complex environments and rely on each other.
The early education of a soldier “must be considered a key asset when determining the military capabilities to procure or maintain. This education plays a significant role in shaping the mental and physical resilience and engagement of the military personnel the armed forces rely upon” as she said. The best leaders, military and otherwise, develop organizational cultures that nurture an individual’s focus on and dedication to their mission even in the face of unexpected setbacks.
Thanks to that Major General Arbiol’s statement, we understand all the better the duality of her role at the same time director of the Ecole de l’Air et de l’Espace and of the French Air Base 701. An intertwined complementarity between the operations of the air forces and the training of the next generation. “The one who will have to benefit from all the experience of the elders to project themselves into the future.” she insisted.
The importance of tradition
“We honor people by remembering them” said Dominique Arbiol
Many of us will have no understanding of war beyond what we have seen on television in news programs and movies. Yet, to acknowledge our privilege, the privilege of being able to wake up in our beds knowing our children can walk to school in safety, we must remember war and the sacrifice made by others. The acts of heroism that occur during times of conflict are many and varied but only a few will ever be recorded and recognized. When we remember our servicepeople, we acknowledge their willingness to endure hardships that we will never truly understand and to take responsibility for securing the peace we enjoy.
By remembering our servicepeople and reflecting on what they have sacrificed, we also remember the freedom these men and women have fought to preserve. Those who join the armed forces do so because they believe that their actions will improve the future. We need to do all we can to help them achieve this dream.
In truth, no one returns from war, not entirely. A part of our servicepeople always remains in the midst of the conflict.
The need for continuous modernization
The first concern of our leaders must be to “maintain a high-quality armed forces supported by solid values and practices”. One can always improve combat skills and acquire new weapons, but the most fundamental and powerful way to improve a military unit is by understanding the damage they can sustain, not just the damage they can inflict.
Answering to my question related to the future challenges, Major General Arbiol affirms that: “In combat, the greatest danger is the unknown. Given that soldiers are the most valuable asset of any military force, these individuals must be able to successfully execute a mission with the tools, information, skills, and mindset we provide them with. This includes our values, such as resilience, mental and physical wellbeing, and engagement. Our values form the backbone of all we do and help us to overcome challenges and find success. We all need to understand and cultivate these values early on in our careers.”
At the point of convergence between operational requirements and technological opportunity, we talk more and more about the tactical “cloud”, or “combat cloud”. Understood as the latest manifestation of Network Centric Warfare, it should provide superiority through « networking ». Initially the favorite playground of geeks and computer scientists, the combat cloud brings into the cockpit the most advanced capabilities of digital networks, based on commercial cloud technologies. New avionics state of mind for the benefits of the mastery of modern technologies, here we are at the crossroad of the evolution of the aviators. This is the price to pay to master the sky thanks to the fifth Generation of Air Combat Systems, such as the FCAS (Future Combat Air System). Where the word « system » takes on its full meaning…
As such, some military operational functions must be transformed in order to strengthen the efficiency, effectiveness and resilience of Air Power. . The Combat Cloud must become an essential element of a Future Combat Air System, while the architects of the combat cloud still have to endeavor to overcome the enormous challenges associated with its development: cybersecurity and all cyber-electronic threats that might endanger their missions.
Effective weapons, fit soldiers, and pioneering technologies can create a formidable military unit but the hand behind this unit is human. If military personnel do not know what they are fighting for, if they are not passionate about the cause they are sacrificing so much to achieve, this is the beginning of failure. Purpose will always be the best weapon we have and will define the world’s greatest armed forces. Purpose is essential for a competent military force, particularly when asking them to face an uncertain future.
“To build a strong armed forces and prepare the next generation of soldiers for the challenges of tomorrow, we must help them to embrace a shared purpose. This is the best way to create value in the military“ she concluded.
A decisive choice.
We now understand the full responsibility of the Heads of French Government, at the time of the choice of essential appointments. Selecting the best personalities for strategic positions means thinking long term, finding the best profile to fulfill the most difficult missions, sometimes indefinable in scope. “It is taking a binding decision in the sole interest of a Nation, beyond friendly cleavages. It is making the choice of trust in the one who will hold the keys to an element essential to the protection of a country, because yes, it is indeed a question of preparing the defense of tomorrow of a France which must remain on the podium of world state powers.”
From her experience, her soft skills and her capabilities, Dominique meets all the conditions to hold this exceptional position, managing the BA 701 and ensuring the future of the famous Ecole de l’Air et de l’Espace. Intelligence combined with experience in the intelligence world, form the powerful amalgam of a personality that knows how to read weak signals, anticipate the unexpected and manage men and women. “Welcoming and transforming chicks to turn them into eaglets that will become raptors”… this is Dominique’s great challenge. What could be more beautiful than to transmit an ancestral tradition to an elite community, which knows how to challenge itself in order to adapt to a threat environment as shifting as it is uncertain…
To inculcate in men and women the Responsibility and Commitment, this faith which codes at the bottom of our human DNA the fundamental reasons to serve his Country. This is the challenge that Major General Dominique Arbiol sets for herself. She knows all the ins and outs, is hardly afraid of the challenges and will know how to make the right decisions with full knowledge of the facts.
The quiet force in action…
Ana Paula Araujo Mendes
Many thanks to:
Logistics and coordination: Capitaine Nathalie CONIL, École de l’Air et de l’Espace.
Interview photos: Pauline MERKEL, École de l’Air et de l’Espace.
The author particularly like to thank General Yvon GOUTX for putting me in touch with the Major General.