On September 1, one of the Armée de l’Air’s A400Ms performed its first operational tactical landing on an unpaved runway at Madama in the north of Niger. The mission was carried out during an operation named Mai Boulala, which also involved Nigerian and Chadian personnel.
According to a French Ministry of Defence press release, the A400M transported 200 troops and several tonnes of cargo from Gao in Mali and N’Djamena in Chad to Niger. The crews from Escadron de Transport 1/61 ‘Touraine’ also transported a Puma and a Gazelle helicopter. These first operational sorties happened not long after the A400M was cleared to carry this type of mission. The A400M had previously visited Niger in August and Mali in December 2016 for a series of trials that were carried out by the Centre d’Expertise Aérienne Militaire to determine how the big airlifter handles in the difficult conditions of Africa.
The Armée de l’Air had already said it was satisfied with the trials, as the A400M apparently operates better from unpaved surfaces than the C-130s. With the serviceability of the A400M slowly increasing and another two deliveries planned for next year, the aircraft should become a more frequent sight in the Sahel region in the near future. The Armée de l’Air is dealing with serviceability issues regarding the C-130 and the venerable C-160, which despite its age (the Transall celebrated 50 years of service on October 5 at the BA105 Evreux) is still soldiering on in the harsh conditions of the Sahel. As the A400M is a step up in terms of capacity and handles well in these difficult environments, it is crucial for Barkhane operations to increase the serviceability of the type and to develop further the tactical capabilities of the aircraft. Currently, six A400Ms are configured to a basic tactical capability, which includes armoured plating to protect the crew.
On September 18, two Rafales and an Atlantique 2 carried out a combined airstrike against a terrorist command centre in the Hawijah region, one of the last remaining strongholds of ISIS in Iraq. According to a communiqué by the Armée de l’Air, this deliberate strike was preceded by a surveillance phase during which the Atlantique 2 crew had to confirm enemy combatants present. Both Rafales and the Atlantique dropped an unspecified number of laser-guided bombs on the target, which according to battle damage assessment was completely destroyed in the process. Although the Atlantique can designate targets by itself when outfitted with a Wescam MX-series sensor, the press release stated that the Rafale’s pods designated all targets. After a mission time of four hours for the Rafales and 8.5 hours for the Atlantique 2, all three aircraft were back at their base in Jordan. The Atlantique 2 has been used as an ISR and strike platform by French forces assigned to Opération Chammal in which the type has proven to be an important asset. The type can fly long hours, has a large crew and can switch between surveillance and close air support when needed. The Aéronavale’s Atlantique 2 deployment reached 2,000 flying hours on September 13.
The tempo of sorties remains high for both Opération Barkhane and Opération Chammal. Between September 20 and October 3, the Armée de l’Air element of Barkhane flew 190 sorties: 38 ISR and aerial refuelling, 59 fast jet and 93 by tactical transports. In the same period, the Chammal force flew 94 sorties (three command and control, 11 ISR, five aerial refuelling and 75 air-to-ground), which resulted in 29 strikes and 36 destroyed targets. Since January 1, 2017, the aircraft assigned to Chammal have flown 1,462 sorties and destroyed 402 targets; 125 in Syria and 277 in Iraq.
Mirage and C-135s
On September 28, a Mirage 2000N assigned to Escadron de Chasse 2/4 ‘Lafayette’ crashed on take-off from N’Djamena in Chad. The cause of the crash is not yet known, but local media were said to have reported an engine fire during take-off. Both crew were able to eject, but the navigator sustained minor injuries to one of his legs. The aircraft did not carry any armament; it was on its way home with three other Mirage 2000s, at the end of their time assigned to Opération Barkhane. This is the second loss of a Mirage 2000 for Opérations Serval and Barkhane. On June 9, 2014, a Mirage 2000D crashed in Mali on its way back to Niamey in Niger.
The French Ministry of Defence announced on October 5 that four Rafale Ms from 11F had arrived in Jordan three days earlier for the third deployment since the Charles de Gaulle entered its homeport of Toulon for an 18-month mid-life overhaul on December 14 2016. The Aéronavale deployment allows the Armée de l’Air to reduce temporarily the number of Rafales deployed by four.
Together with the six Rafales based at BA104 Al Dhafra in the United Arab Emirates, the number of Rafales assigned to Opération Chammal is currently 14. The Rafale Ms are expected to stay in Jordan four the next two months.
By October 5, another Chammal C-135FR deployment came to an end. Irregular in pattern, C-135FR deployments that operate from the United Arab Emirates have accumulated almost 300 aerial refuelling sorties, totalling 2,200 flying hours while refuelling 1.200 coalition aircraft, since the beginning of the operation in September 2014. This latest deployment had flown 24 sorties (166 flying hours) and delivered 514 tonnes of fuel between the end of August and the end of September. A typical deployment consists of one C-135FR, two full crews and around 15 mechanics who stay in the UAE for two months at a time. According to the Armée de l’Air, a C-135FR often flies a seven-hour sortie every other day, with the day between fiights used to perform maintenance and prepare the plane for the next sortie.
Sécurité Civile’s Groupement d’Hélicoptères de la Sécurité Civile (GHSC) celebrated its 60th anniversary with an open day at its main base, Nîmes Garons, on October 21. This base is home to the GHSC command and its training and maintenance facilities. When the helicopter command was established in 1957, the service had two Bell 47s and operated from three bases: Grenoble, Lorient and Issy-les-Moulineaux. The Bell 47s were replaced by the Alouette II and later the Alouette III; the first helicopter capable of rescue operations in mountainous areas. Other helicopters such as the Dauphin and the AS350B2 Ecureuil also served with the Sécurité Civile. Today, the GHSC has 35 EC145s on strength and employs over 300 personnel. The fleet is based at the Nîmes Garons training facility, 23 different Sécurité Civile bases on the French mainland and some overseas departments. Sécurité Civile helicopters are referred to as Dragons, which combined with the base department number forms the radio call sign for GHSC EC145s. Around 30% of rescue missions flown by the crews are in mountainous areas, whereas 6% are flown over water. Daily, crews remain ready to leave on a moment’s notice from 09:00hrs until sundown. Outside of these hours, crews are on call and have to be airborne within either 30 or 60 minutes. Approximately 25% of the GHSC rescue missions take place at night.