American Munitions, Ukrainian Transports and Leased Caracals

The Centre d’Expertise de l’Armement Embarqué (CEAE), the specialised weapons unit of the Armée de l’Air, based at BA120 Cazaux (a unit assigned to the Centre d’Expertise Aérienne Militaire or CEAM based at BA118 Mont-de-Marsan), is currently involved in testing new munitions for the Dassault Rafale. In March, two Rafales assigned to the CEAM deployed to Cazaux to test the characteristics of the 500lb (227kg) Mk82 unguided bomb.

On March 14, a Rafale flown by a CEAE crew took off from Cazaux loaded with three Mk82s carried under each wing for the type’s first release of the Mk82 over the Captieux range. According to the Armée de l’Air all six bombs were dropped during the test. Although the Mk82 is a common munition, it is not a weapon of choice for the close air support missions flown by Rafales assigned to Opération Chammal; they typically use GPS-guided Armement Air Sol Modulaire munitions (AASMs) and 500lb GBU-12 laser-guided bombs.

The CEAE is also currently testing the latest generation of the SAFRAN AASM, also known as the Hammer (Highly Agile Modular Munition Extended Range). The AASM is built using a kit attached to a standard bomb body, such as a Mk82 and consists of a guidance unit and a range extension kit. Its modular design means the user can choose from SBU-38, SBU- 54 and SBU-64 guidance kits: the SBU-38 uses INS and GPS coordinates; the SBU- 54 uses INS/GPS and laser guidance and converts the AASM into a laser-guided munition that can be targeted by either an airborne pod or a forward air controller on the ground; and the SBU-64 uses INS/GPS and infrared guidance using an infrared imager for terminal guidance.

A CEAE crew flying a Rafale from Cazaux carried out the first release of the new generation AASM over the Direction Générale de l’Armement range at Biscarrosse on January 26, 2017. One main advantage of the latest AASM is its agile release capability, which allows pilots to release the munition during, for instance, close air support without turning towards the target first. Another advantage is a new capability of releasing the munition at very high speeds and at very low altitudes.

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The Direction Générale de l’Armement Essais en vol (DGA-EV) based at BA125 Istres has started flight tests with a Rafale equipped with a Lockheed Martin AAQ-33 Sniper advanced targeting pod. A Rafale was seen at Istres on March 21, carrying a Sniper pod and six GBU-12s; the pod is being tested for Qatar. The first Qatari single-seat Rafale (EQ01) flew from the Dassault plant at Bordeaux Mérignac on March 27. The Qatari Air Force decided to fit the American Sniper pod to its Rafales whereas the Armée de l’Air opted for the TALIOS pod.

All Sécurité Civile CL415s are now based at the Base Aérienne de la Sécurité Civile at Nimes-Garons
All images Jan Kraak

While Dassault is building and delivering Egyptian, Indian and Qatari Rafales, the French press has been speculating about a possible sale to Malaysia. Dassault Aviation’s CEO has stated the company is discussing a possible sale of 18 Rafales estimated to be worth over €2 billion. The rumours were further sparked by a visit of the French President François Hollande and his Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian to Subang Air Base on March 29, days after the 2017 Langkawi International Maritime and Aerospace Exhibition. Malaysia is currently looking to replace its aging fleet of MIG-29s. French newspapers stated the Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak had expressed the nation was interested in the Rafale but that any decision on a MiG-29 replacement would take time. Other bidders are the Boeing F/A-18 Super Hornet, Saab JAS 39 Gripen and the Euro fighter Typhoon. Malaysia’s Defence Minister Hishammuddin Hussein was recently quoted by French and international media, including AIR International, saying that the competition was between the Rafale and the Eurofighter.

On March 20, Jean-Yves Le Drian gave the green light for development of the F4 standard Rafale; the next big upgrade for the French fighter. Although F4 will only enter service around 2023, the go ahead is important for the different Rafale partners because it secures funding for the next step in the Rafale programme. Dassault and its partners are currently working on the F3R standard, which will enter service in 2018.

Serviceability

Following questions by Member of Parliament François Cornut-Gentille to Jean-Yves Le Drian, the French Ministry of Defence provided data on aircraft numbers, serviceability and the average age of its aircraft fleets. The information provided some interesting insights into the availability of Armée de l’Air and Aéronavale aircraft.

As of December 31, the Armée de l’Air’s fighter aircraft fleet consisted of 98 Rafales, 71 Mirage 2000Ds, 28 Mirage 2000-5s, seven Mirage 2000Bs, 15 Mirage 2000Cs and 29 Mirage 2000Ns. The only changes in these numbers, compared to one year earlier were five additional Rafales delivered to the Armée de l’Air in 2016. The highest serviceability rates were reported for the Rafale (49.3%) and the Mirage 2000B (49.9%), whereas the Mirage 2000D showed the lowest rate at 35.2%. The Mirage 2000D fleet has been extensively deployed in recent years, which might explain the lower rates. Rafales were also deployed in 2016 for Opération Chammal but the fleet is much younger, with an average age of seven years compared to 19.9 years for the Mirage 2000D. Typical increased needs for maintenance on older airframes could well be one of the reasons for the difference in serviceability. The Aéronavale’s Rafale M fleet comprising 41 aircraft (two more than in 2015) achieved a 56.6% serviceability rate over the same period.

As was the case in recent years, the Armée de l’Air’s transport fleet is still struggling with serviceability. The 14 Hercules reported a drop from 26.2% to 22.5% whereas the 21 Transalls saw a 4.7% drop compared to 2015. For years, Armée de l’Air transport aircraft have been deployed extensively on overseas operations and many of those operations, such as Barkhane, are flown under harsh conditions, which takes a toll on the aircraft. French specialised press recently published information about the activities of the Armée de l’Air’s tactical transport aircraft. It makes interesting reading. Just under 2,000 paratroopers and 200 tons of supplies were airdropped in 2016. The A400M did not appear in the serviceability release. As previously reported in this column, the Armée de l’Air’s A400M aircraft struggled with serviceability last year. It will be interesting to see how the A400M programme develops as C-160s and C-130s struggle with low serviceability. The A400M can certainly help; its cargo capacity is twice that of the Hercules and four times that of the Transall. French Defence journalist Jean-Marc Tanguy even stated the A400M actually carries eight times the load of the Transall during operations in Africa.

The last two SA330B Pumas assigned to EH 1/67 during the ceremony held at BA120 Cazaux on March 10.

Continuing with French military transport capability, answers to further questions by Cornut-Gentille on March 14 revealed the French Ministry of Defence paid for 591 hours on the Antonov An-124 in 2016. In the two weeks following his questions, many French newspapers discussed the dependency of the French Armed Forces on Ukrainian and Russian companies. Many French politicians perceive the dependency as being too great. However, with a capacity of around 120 tons compared to the A400M’s 30-ton maximum payload, the An-124 is likely to remain an important contracted asset for the French Armed Forces in the years to come.

While serviceability of the 27 CASA CN235s fell slightly from 52.3% to 50.8%, the two C-160 Gabriel electronic intelligence aircraft actually reported an increase of 6.7%, though the Gabriel serves a vital but non-transport role. The average age of the Armée de l’Air transport fleet in years is: C-130 Hercules (30); Transall C-160 (34.9); and C-135 (53.7), and certainly above the ages of most of the aviators flying them. Although it would be interesting to have details about the serviceability of the Mirage 2000N and KC- 135 this information is classified as both types are assigned to the Force Aériennes Stratégiques (Strategic Air Forces).

Another aircraft suffering serviceability decrease in 2016 was the Alpha Jet. The well-known training aircraft (in 2016 the average age of the 134 aircraft fleet was 34.9 years) now has a serviceability rate of 37.8%. Only time will tell if the rate will increase for the remainder of the fleet once the older aircraft currently based to BA705 Tours (those that were not modernised), are retired in the near future.

Meanwhile, Armée de l’Air UAVs (information released included four SIDMs and three MQ-9 Reapers) seem to show the consequences of long periods of intensive use. The SIDM’s serviceability dropped an impressive 26.2% to 36.6%, while the rate for the MQ-9 dropped by 15% to 71.3%. The two latest MQ-9s delivered to the Armée de l’Air were cleared to fly in March, bringing the fleet operating at Niamey in Niger to five.

Finally there were details about something else that’s been discussed extensively in recent months: the Aéronavale Atlantique 2. Even though the serviceability is expected to increase throughout 2017 following different proposals to improve the maintenance process, the result for 2016 is worse than for 2015; the serviceability rate of the 23 aircraft fleet dropped by 2.2% to 24%.

A Rafale’s underwing hard-points allow the carriage of three 500lb Mk82 munitions under each wing, the weapon payload configuration used during CEAE tests in March.
The ceremony held at BA120 Cazaux on March 10 also meant the end of joint (SA330 and EC725) combat search and rescue missions for EH 1/67. From now on the squadron only operates the Caracal.

Leaving Cazaux

Escadron d’Hélicoptères (EH) 1/67 said goodbye to its last two SA330B Pumas during a ceremony on March 10 after 43 years of operation from BA120 Cazaux. The squadron’s Pumas have been transferred to EH 1/44 based at BA126 Solenzara on the island of Corsica. This move marks the end of a shuffle of several aircraft. Until recently, EH 1/44 operated two types of Super Puma (the AS332L1 and the AS332C).

However, the increased cost of maintaining such micro fleets became too expensive and thus the decision was taken to replace them with SA330Bs. The first Puma arrived at Corsica in early 2016. A few months later, the Armée de l’Air announced the two remaining AS332Cs were sold to the Ejército del Aire. Since late last year, EH 1/44 had only operated the venerable Puma equipped with 12 helicopters assigned, six of which will be permanently based at Solenzara. EH 1/67 operated both the Puma and EC725 Caracal until March 10, when the squadron was a Caracal-only unit. One of the most notable helicopter squadrons in France, EH 1/67 currently has fewer aircraft than a few years ago, but will increase its fleet again in the near future once Caracals transfer in from the Aviation Légère de l’Armée de Terre (ALAT) when the 4e RHFS (Régiment d’Hélicoptères des Forces Spéciales) based at Pau takes delivery of its first NH90s dedicated to the special operations role.

The Armée de l’Air Puma has years of operations ahead, but will become a rare sight on the French mainland; the squadrons continuing to operate the type are based in Corsica (EH 1/44) and in the French oversees departments in French Guyane (ET 0/68) and French Polynesia (ET 0/52). Meanwhile the ALAT is also restructuring its helicopter regiments. On March 21, the last Puma assigned to the 1e RHC (Régiment Hélicoptères de Combat) based at Phalsbourg (1190/DDA) left the base for its new home; with 5e RHC at Pau. The RHC at Phalsbourg now operates Gazelles, Tigres and NH90 Caimans.

Leaving Marseille-Marignane

French Prime Minister Bernard Cazeneuve inaugurated the new Base Aérienne de la Sécurité Civile (BASC) at Nimes-Garons on March 10. A fleet of 26 fixed wing aircraft and 80 pilots had been based at Marseille- Marignane since 1963. Transfer to their new home base followed in the weeks after the inauguration. Nimes-Garons was already home to the Groupement d’Hélicoptères de la Sécurité Civile (GHSC) a headquarter organisation that coordinates the operations of 23 Sécurité Civile helicopter bases throughout France, trains aircrew and is responsible for maintenance of the EC145 fleet.

Nimes-Garons is a good alternative to Marseille-Marignane for the fixed wing aircraft because there are fewer air traffic restrictions compared to Marseille’s busy airport.

Another advantage for the BASC is its new dedicated and up-to-date facility. In the months leading up to the move, facilities of the former Base Aéronavale Navale, which closed in 2011, were renovated and adapted for the fire-fighting aircraft. New facilities include re-filling stations so the different water bomber aircraft can take on water or fire retardant without losing too much time during firefighting missions.

All 12 CL415s, nine S2FT Trackers, two Dash 8 Q400MRs and two Beech King Air 200s assigned to the BASC are now based at Nimes-Garons from where they will continue to deploy throughout France during the summer months in order to reduce response times in the event of wild fires.

Civilian Caracal

Since February 17, 2017, the Armée de l’Air has been leasing a civilian EC225 from ICARE for crew training purposes. The aircraft has since arrived at Cazaux and is being flown by crews from EH 1/67. According to a release by the French Ministry of Defence, two EC225 aircraft are being leased for use by EH 1/67 (F-HLIS and F-HRLI), although only one should be at Cazaux at any given time. No information was released as to the number of hours the Armée de l’Air has bought or the value of the lease agreement. This is not the first time the French Armed Forces has leased civilian aircraft for crew training. Hélicoptères de France leased a Super Puma (F-GTLA) to the 4e RHFS and 5e RHC at Pau from 2015.

End of the Road

The Armée de l’Air announced it will deactivate one of its Transall C-160 squadrons at BA105 Evreux this summer. Escadron Transport (ET) 1/64 ‘Béarn’ is the squadron said to be slated for the chop. The Transall fleet is slowly being reduced (three aircraft were retired in 2016) while the A400M is (very slowly) coming of age. The Armée de l’Air currently operates 21 Transalls; of these around eight aircraft were serviceable as of December 31, 2016.