Jan Kraak provides an overview of the latest and greatest in French air power
The French Armed Forces operate a variety of aircraft types in different roles. Although the Armée de l’Air, Aéronavale and Aviation Légère de l’Armée de Terre have seen a significant reduction of aircraft over the last decade, the services have been heavily deployed in recent years. After permanent deployments to Afghanistan and military operations over Libya for Opération Harmattan in 2011, the services have been permanently involved in ongoing operations across the G5 Sahel: Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger for Opération Serval (2013–2014) and later Barkhane (since 2014), as well as Opération Chammal in the Levant, which started in September 2014. The following feature aims to provide an overview of the current operational aircraft and operations, including the developments for the operational units of the three French services.
The French armed forces have several aircraft that are either dedicated to the air defence task or that have an air defence role among the tasks of their mission set. Aircraft specifically dedicated to air defence are 15 Mirage 2000Cs assigned to Escadron de Chasse (EC) 2/5 ‘Ile de France’ at BA115 Orange and 28 Mirage 2000-5s from EC 1/2 ‘Cigognes’, which is based at BA116 Luxeuil. Although the Mirage 2000 has been in service for decades it is still performing on the front line. The Mirage 2000-5 was, for instance, deployed for the Baltic Air Policing mission in the second half of 2016. While the Mirage 2000C is in the twilight of its career, the Mirage 2000-5 will continue to protect the skies over France for some time to come. Due to the recent export successe of the Rafale, the Armée de l’Air will receive very few additional aircraft over the next few years, and the Rafales that will be delivered are destined to go to the second nuclear deterrent squadron at BA113 Saint-Dizier.
Contrary to the Mirage 2000, the Rafale is an omnirole fighter, which means that air defence is but one of the tasks that are assigned to the Rafale squadrons. The Armée de l’Air has 98 Rafales in service, whereas the Aéronavale operates 39 Rafale Ms. The Aéronavale has two squadrons (Flotille 11 and 12) that are operational on the Rafale M, with the third squadron (Flotille 17) currently working towards operational status. Once all three squadrons are operational, two will be deployed to the Charles de Gaulle carrier group or Groupe Aéronavale (GAN) when it leaves for a cruise. All the Rafale M’s are based at BAN Landivisiau near Brest in Brittany.
The Armée de l’Air frontline Rafale squadrons are: EC 1/4 ‘Gascogne’, which operates from BA113 Saint-Dizier, EC 1/7 ‘Provence’ based at BA104 Al Dhafra in the United Arab Emirates, and finally Régiment de Chasse (RC) 2/30 ‘Normandie-Niémen’ and EC 3/30 ‘Lorraine’ based at BA118 Mont-de-Marsan. Even though Rafale pilots train for all the conventional missions undertaken by the type, there are some areas in which either EC 3/30 or RC 2/30 will take the lead. As such, EC 3/30 is the Armée de l’Air reference squadron for the air-to-air task whereas RC 2/30 is referent for the air-to-ground role. The reference squadrons are in charge of writing the tactical user guides for the entire Rafale fleet. Escadron de Chasse et d’Expérimentation (ECE) 1/30 ‘Côte d’Argent’ provides operational squadrons with a technical user guide for new equipment, but these documents only serve as a basis for future tactical doctrine. The Rafale is a relatively new platform (the first aircraft were delivered only ten years ago) and has had several extensive updates. As a result, the body of documentation is also recent. Writing of operational manuals at the squadron (referent) level started in 2014. All these documents are archived in a centralised database and serve as reference works.
French air-to-air armament and tactics are going to change over the next few years. The older generation R-550 Magic 2 short-range air-to-air missile is still used by the Mirage 2000C, Mirage 2000D and Mirage 2000N, but this will soon be a thing of the past. The Mirage 2000C and Mirage 2000N are quickly approaching retirement, whereas the Mirage 2000D will undergo a mid-life update after which the aircraft will be equipped with the MICA missile already in service with the Mirage 2000-5 and Rafale. The MICA is a beyond-visual-range (BVR) air-to-air missile with a range of approximately 50km (26nm). However, the METEOR active radar guided BVR air-to-air missile will be used by the Rafale once the F3R standard is introduced in 2018. METEOR will be a game-changer that will see the Armée de l’Air changing air-to-air tactics as Rafales are expected to carry a mix of MICA and METEOR for offensive and defensive air-to-air tasks. The METEOR is equipped with a Strato Rector, which in combination with the now standard active electronically scanned array (AESR) radar, will allow the Rafale to engage aerial targets approximately 100km (54nm) away. The fourth and final test firing of a METEOR by a Rafale took place on April 6, 2017. After this test, which was carried out by the Direction Générale de l’Armement Essais en vol (DGA-EV) from BA120 Cazaux, the Centre d’Expertise Aérienne Militaire (CEAM) will start operational testing of the missile in order to write the technical user guides for ground personnel and aircrews. The F3R standard will also include updates to the SPECTRA (Self-Protection Equipment to Counter Threats for Rafale Aircraft) integrated electronic warfare suite. On March 20, 2017, the French Minister of Defence, Jean-Yves Le Drian, announced he had given the green light for the next big upgrade for the Rafale, the F4 standard. This next standard is rumoured in the French press to include an increase in the thrust of the M88 engines, the next generation MICA missile, as well as further developments in Link 16 integration with other aircraft flying the same mission, thereby allowing each aircraft to have real-time access to data and imagery from the other planes. The first elements of the F4 standard will be introduced on French Rafales from 2023 onwards and the first complete F4 should join the operational squadrons in 2025.
Besides the air-to-air tasks for which the aircrew of the above units train, squadrons also supply planes and personnel for the different Quick Reaction Alert (QRA) detachments in France. The typical QRA detachment is made up of two fighter jets of which the first has to be airborne seven minutes after the alarm and the second jet should be able to join the first aircraft in less than 15 minutes. The QRA task is referred to as the Posture Permanente de Sûreté aérienne (PPS), which falls under the command of the Commandement de la Défense Aérienne et des Opérations Aériennes (CDAOA) in Paris. According to the Armée de l’Air, no fewer than 11,000 aircraft transit French airspace daily. In 2016, fighter aircraft were scrambled 75 times. All Rafale frontline squadrons currently based on the French mainland participate in the PPS. Even EC 1/4, which is one of the nuclear deterrent squadrons, joined the PPS on February 11, 2016. Apart from the QRA, the CDAOA is also tasked with securing specific parts of French airspace, such as the areas surrounding nuclear plants or main events like Le Bourget air show. These activities are referred to as Mesures Actives de Sûreté Aérienne (MASA) and are typically flown by the AS555AN Fennec carrying two snipers armed with the 7.62mm HK417 machine gun, although the TB.30 Epsilon is also deployed for MASA tasks on a regular basis. In 2016, helicopters were scrambled 140 times for a MASA alert.
The French armed forces have a strike capability through the fighter jets assigned to the Armée de l’Air and the Aéronavale. The Armée de l’Air strike capability is divided into: conventional attack, which falls under the regular command of the Air Force, the Commandement des Forces Aériennes (CFA); and the nuclear deterrent capability, which is the responsibility of the Forces Aériennes Stratégiques (FAS). The Aéronavale squadrons primarily focus on conventional missions, but the Rafale M fleet also has a nuclear deterrence task, referred to as Force Aéronavale Nucléaire (FANu). The Armée de l’Air nuclear deterrent force is stationed at two air bases: BA113 Saint-Dizier, where EC 1/4 operates the two-seat Rafale B; and BA125 Istres, which will be the home of EC 2/4 ‘La Fayette’ and its 29 Mirage 2000N until September 2018, when EC 2/4 will retire the last Mirage 2000N before moving to Saint- Dizier as a Rafale unit. All French nuclear deterrence squadrons have used the latest cruise missile since 2010, the Air-Sol Moyenne Portée Amélioré (ASMPA). The ASMPA has a range of approximately 500km (270nm) and carries a 300-kiloton warhead. The ASMPA missiles are stored at three different air bases, BA702 Avord, BA125 Istres and BA113 Saint-Dizier. Although 79 were originally ordered, the exact number of ASMPA missiles that MBDA delivered to the French armed forces was never made public until President François Hollande mentioned during a press conference at Istres in February 2015 that France has 54. However, this number might not be exact, as the nuclear deterrence force launches an ASMPA every now and then to showcase its capability and test procedures. On February 14, 2017, a Rafale M of the FANu fired an ASMPA at the DGA’s test range near Biscarrosse in south-west France. The aircraft had taken off from BA702 Avord for a fourhour mission that involved aerial refuelling and very-low-altitude flying before firing the missile near Biscarrosse.
Even though the nuclear deterrence is an important task for the French armed forces, which takes up a considerable part of the budget, most of the activities concern the conventional strike role of which RC 2/30 is the referent squadron of the Armée de l’Air. Rafale detachments in Jordan and the United Arab Emirates fly air-to-ground, reconnaissance and air interdiction missions. The Rafales in Jordan almost exclusively carry out air-to-ground and air interdiction sorties. Many sorties involve close air support (CAS) and approximately 100 munitions are dropped during each two-month deployment. The majority of sorties flown in the Middle East are dynamic strike missions. A standard patrol will have one aircraft carrying GPS-guided Armement Air Sol Modulaire (AASM) weapons and the other carrying 500lb (227kg) GBU-12 laser-guided bombs. The Rafale aircrews also fly deliberate strike missions. These are, for example, carried out with the MBDA SCALP conventionally armed stand-off missile or 2,000lb (907kg) GBU-24s and are often part of large-scale Composite Air Operations (COMAO) that also involve coalition aircraft. Rafales typically selfdesignate their targets, but coalition drones or Forward Air Controllers (FAC) also designate targets when needed.
Although their main mission will always be nuclear deterrence, the secondary task of the FAS squadrons is the conventional strike capability. As a result, EC 1/4 and EC 2/4 have been deployed to Opération Barkhane and Chammal on a regular basis. Rafale crews from EC 1/4 were deployed on a regular basis to N’Djamena in Chad for Opération Barkhane, until the Armée de l’Air decided in 2016 to assign the Rafale to Opération Chammal. Since then EC 1/4 personnel deploy to the Chammal contingent in Jordan. Mirage 2000Ns were deployed to Jordan for Opération Chammal on July 31, 2015 and returned home on February 1, 2016. Because the Mirage 2000N does not carry a designator pod, aircraft assigned to EC 2/4 flew mixed patrols with Mirage 2000Ds during this deployment. The Mirage 2000N acted effectively as a bomb delivery platform. To this end, the CEAM had tested and validated a configuration that saw the Mirage 2000N carry no fewer than four GBU-12 laser-guided bombs. During their six-month Chammal deployment EC2/4 carried out 300 sorties and dropped 140 bombs. However, Chammal would not be the last wartime deployment for the Mirage 2000N. The Armée de l’Air announced on April 7, 2017 that two Mirage 2000Ns had deployed to N’Djamena for Opération Barkhane. According to the press release, this was the first time the type had landed in N’Djamena. With the arrival of these two Mirage aircraft, the fighter contingent at N’Djamena has increased to four fighter jets. The Mirage 2000Ns will fly mixed patrols, also called Mixed Fighter Elements, with the Mirage 2000Ds already at the base. This is not the first time that the Barkhane fighter detachment conducts mixed patrols; EC 2/5 crews and their Mirage 2000Cs have deployed to Niamey in Niger several times since 2015. The Armée de l’Air announced recently that two Mirage 2000Cs operating out of Niamey were refuelled by a Spanish KC-130 based in Dakar on February 21, 2017.
Besides the Rafale and the Mirage 2000N, the Armée de l’Air also has 71 Mirage 2000Ds in service. These aircraft are tasked with the conventional strike mission. Out of the current 71 Mirage 2000Ds, 55 will receive a mid-life update (MLU) that will be carried out by Dassault Aviation and MBDA. The MLU will include a gun pod, new avionics and as stated above, integration of the MICA air-to-air missiles for improved self-protection. These updates should keep the Mirage 2000D in service until at least 2030. The First Mirage 2000D MLU is to be delivered in 2019.
The Armée de l’Air is also involved in testing new armament and new configurations for their aircraft. On January 26, 2017, a Rafale flown by crew from the Centre d’Expertise de l’Armement Embarqué (CEAE) at Cazaux executed the first release of the new generation AASM, also known as the Highly Agile Modular Munition Extended Range (HAMMER) at the DGA range at Biscarrosse. Two months later, on March 14, the same unit dropped a Mk82 from a Rafale over the Captieux range. This was the first time a Rafale dropped a Mk82; but the development is not limited to bombs alone. On February 28, 2017, France and the UK signed an agreement to start the next phase of the development process of the replacement for the SCALP missile, which will also replace the Exocet and Harpoon anti-ship missiles.
Apart from the different innovations in armament, there are also highly anticipated developments regarding the designator pods of French fighter jets. The Armée de l’Air currently uses three different types of designator pod: Automatic Tracking and Laser Integration System (ATLIS); Pod de Désignation Laser Caméra Thermique (PDLCT); and Damocles. In total, around 50 designator pods are in use. This number includes the 21 Damocles pods that are used exclusively by the Rafales and are shared with the Aéronavale. Due to their age (the ATLIS pods were designed in the 1970s) and their intensive use during the ongoing operations (at one point in 2016 only four Damocles pods were available in France for training purposes), the combined serviceability of the French targeting pods was 55% last year. It is therefore not a surprise that the armed forces have repeatedly expressed the need for a new generation of designator pods. The pod selected for this reason is the Targeting Long-range Identification Optronic System (TALIOS), which is produced by Thales and will be the first pod able to gather intelligence, designate targets and perform battle damage assessment. Like the METEOR missile, the TALIOS pod is included in the Rafale F3R standard and the first pods should therefore be delivered to the operational squadrons from 2018, at the same time as the F3R. The DGA has ordered 20 TALIOS pods for the Armée de l’Air and the Aéronavale thus far, but the Military Programming Act for 2014–2019 refers to 45 TALIOS pods, which means that a follow-on order for an additional 25 pods is likely in the next year or so. The first flight of a Rafale equipped with the TALIOS took place on July 26, 2016. During the two-hour flight that was part of the Rafale Mark F3R programme, the pilot tested the daytime designator and image functions.
Besides the expected increase in designator pod availability for training purposes, the Armée de l’Air is also investing in better simulator training tools to help pilots in various areas such as procedures and pod-specific characteristics. Mont-de-Marsan received a basic Rafale flight simulator in 2015, called an Outil d’Apprentissage Basique (OAB or basic learning tool). In 2017, the OAB should receive two upgrades: the SPECTRA autoprotection system; and an imager that will allow pilots to train reconnaissance missions and laser designation during simulated strike missions. In 2019, BA118 will receive a full mission simulator, the (Centre de Simulation Rafale Nouvelle Génération (CSRNG). Pilots will then be able to train for any type of mission in the simulator, alone or against opponents in the simulator at Saint-Dizier.
Recent years have seen many developments in the reconnaissance capabilities of the French armed forces. One of the main changes is the move to a digital reconnaissance structure. The Rafale has been tasked with reconnaissance for a few years now and since the retirement of the Mirage F1CR (Oméra camera’s and PRESTO pod) in 2014 and the Super Etendard Modernisé (CRM280 pod) in 2016 it has been the only fast jet platform to do the job. In the reconnaissance configuration, the Rafale typically flies with a RECO NG pod and two MICA IR as well as two MICA EM missiles. For the Armée de l’Air Rafale squadron RC 2/30 is currently writing the tactical user guide on reconnaissance. This knowledge was already available, in part thanks to the former Mirage F1CR pilots that transferred to the Rafale, but until now it was tacit, being passed from one pilot to another without having the information in writing.
The RECO NG allows the Rafale pilot to observe a target from a greater stand-off range and at higher altitudes. The Mirage F1CR equipped with the PRESTO pod typically flew within 10km (5nm) of the target and below an altitude of 15,000ft (4,500m). This made the Mirage F1CR vulnerable to enemy detection and countermeasures. With the RECO NG, Rafale crews are able to gather images of the same quality at a distance of 30–40km (16-21nm) and an altitude of almost 30,000ft (9,000m). The Rafales are thus very difficult to detect. Another advantage is the pod’s hard drive. Instead of limitations of the amount of film carried in the old PRESTO pod, the RECO NG has 1Tb of storage available, which allows the pilot to photograph vast areas. When the images are downloaded from the RECO NG to the interpretation interface, called Système d’Aide à l’Interprétation Multi Capteurs (SAIM), they are already georeferenced, which simplifies part of the work of the image interpreters. The RECO NG can also send its images to the interpreters during the mission. For this to work, the RECO NG needs a Station de Réception de Données (SRD) ground station within a certain range of the pod as its reach is limited. This was done in 2011 for Opération Harmattan when the SRD was on board the Charles de Gaulle aircraft carrier and later in 2013 for Opération Serval when the SRD was deployed to Niamey in Niger. The RECO NG would send the images to the SRD, which would relay them to N’Djamena, where the Rafales would land one-and-a-half hours later. The SRD has not been deployed to Chammal. One of the reasons is that there are quite a few coalition intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) platforms, such as drones, flying in the areas of operation that send full-motion video to the command centre, which is used for timesensitive targeting.
Besides many advantages, digital reconnaissance also presents new challenges for the squadron’s intelligence cell, going through all the data collected by the RECO NG. The limiting factor nowadays is one of capacity. A single image interpreter can process approximately 100km2 (38 square miles) per hour in the desert, but this is reduced to around 30km2 (12 square miles) when the pictures have been taken above cities. Imagery taken by the RECO NG have three objectives. First, they provide intelligence about the enemy: where they are and what they are doing. Second, this information serves as a basis to establish strike lists. The third and final goal is to perform battle damage assessment in order to assess how successful strikes were. A typical preparation for a mission is between four and six hours, followed by the actual flight lasting six to eight hours and a debrief that can take up to 48 hours for larger COMAOs. As a result, the second and third goals are often a race against the clock.
Intelligence personnel assigned to Rafale squadrons are heavily impacted by the current ops tempo. Because of all the different tasks and the sophisticated systems on the Rafale, each squadron intelligence section is much bigger than the Mirage squadrons, comprising on average, around 20 people, compared to, for instance, five or six at a typical Mirage 2000D squadron, which is dedicated to the conventional airto- ground role. As the Rafale squadrons are made up of approximately two-thirds pilots and one-third intelligence personnel, the latter will have more operational deployments than the former. Currently, pilots complete one Chammal deployment a year, whereas the intelligence personnel have two or more deployments that easily add up to around 150 days. However, when the personnel are at home they also have a high workload, as they are involved in both training activities and missions flown from the French mainland, such as armed reconnaissance missions that were recently carried out over Libya. In each intelligence cell, an intelligence officer is in charge of the threat assessment. In order to do that, the intelligence officer heads a team that includes three types of specialists: image interpreters, who are responsible for the digital maps on the new Outil Connecté d’Aide à la Décision (OCAD) tablets that the Rafale pilots work with during digitally aided close air support (DACAS), debrief the reconnaissance missions and interpret the data that the RECO NG has gathered; intelligence analysts, who have many different tasks, including preparing the analysis of the tactical situation so that the pilot will have relevant information about enemy positions, surface-to-air weapons, which will be projected into the head-up display during the mission; and electronic intelligence (ELINT) operators: personnel responsible for programming the electronic warfare library for the SPECTRA integrated electronic warfare suite and debriefing with the pilot after every mission.
The Chammal deployments typically include two intelligence officers, two to four image interpreters (depends on the reconnaissance element of the deployment), two intelligence analysts and one ELINT operator. This represents roughly half of the intelligence section of a Rafale squadron. It is therefore no surprise that EC 1/4, RC 2/30 and EC 3/30 work together to minimise the impact of Chammal deployments within each squadron. Even with this extensive cooperation between the three squadrons, it is clear that the Rafale intelligence community is under a lot of stress. Seven or so image interpreters per Rafale squadron is not enough and each squadron would need double or even triple that number in order to increase the capacity and speed to the desired levels. However, in a time of stretched budgets, this is not something that is likely to happen.
The second main reconnaissance modernisation capability is the drone. Although the Armée de l’Air had expressed the need for more drones before, the necessity of rapidly expanding the reconnaissance capability received political backing once French forces were deployed for Opération Serval. On June 11, 2013, Jean-Yves Le Drian announced that France would buy 12 MQ-9 Reapers through the Foreign Military Sale (FMS) programme. The Armée de l’Air Harfang and Reapers are operated by Escadron de Drones (ED) 1/33 ‘Belfort’ based at BA709 Cognac. Harfang drones were deployed to the Sahel region in 2013, but on September 8, 2016, it was announced they had returned home to Cognac in order to prepare for the arrival of additional MQ-9s at Niamey. In late December 2016, the second Reaper system was delivered, bringing the Armée de l’Air fleet to six aircraft. Two of the latest batch were delivered straight to Niamey to strengthen the Barkhane drone fleet. From December 2016, the Armée de l’Air allowed its aircrew to take off and land the MQ-9 themselves, instead of General Atomics personnel. The newest Reapers flew their first missions from Niger on March 11 and 12 respectively, totalling some 20 flying hours. Reapers are in high demand; they had already accumulated 1,500 flying hours since January 1. As the drone fleet is steadily increasing (currently four Harfang and six Reapers), the command structure of ED 1/33 is also evolving. As such, an additional escadrille (BR 218) was added to the squadron on April 11. The Armée de l’Air is also setting up its own training unit, so it can train future personnel in France. To this end, a simulator should be delivered to Cognac by mid-2017. According to French specialised press outlets, the name of this unit will be Escadron de Transformation Opérationnelle Drones (ETOD). All MQ-9s currently in the Armée de l’Air inventory are Block 1 aircraft. The third and fourth batches, ordered by the DGA on December 7, 2015, and December 5, 2016, will be Block 5 aircraft and should be delivered by late 2019. The Block 5 version of the MQ-9 has improved avionics and control systems that facilitate the integration of additional systems such as a signals intelligence (SIGINT) suite. The first six aircraft should be upgraded to Block 5 once the last two batches will be delivered.
The Armée de l’Air currently has two dedicated SIGINT platforms that also have imagery intelligence (IMINT) capability in the form of two C-160G Gabriels assigned to Escadron Electronique Aéroporté (EEA) 0/54 ‘Dunkerque.’ The Gabriel aircraft have been regularly deployed in recent years: Harmattan in 2011, Serval/Barkhane since 2013 and, more recently, Chammal. The planes typically fly up to 13-hour missions to collect intelligence or to support ongoing operations. The Gabriel can refuel inflight, but until recently the aircraft was only qualified to refuel from a C-160. A Gabriel can intercept radar signals, radio messages, phone calls, encrypted communications, data transfers and so on. Although the planes are getting old (they were delivered in 1989), their retirement is currently planned for 2023. This will allow the Armée de l’Air to develop its MQ-9 SIGINT capabilities once the final two systems are delivered in 2019, but the service will also receive two Beechcraft King Air 350s in 2018-2019 to supplement its intelligence gathering capabilities. On June 22, 2016, the DGA announced Thales and Sabena Technics would outfit two light ISR aircraft under the Avions Légers de Surveillance et de Reconnaissance (ALSR) programme. The King Air 350 was selected because of its low impact on logistical processes and its ability to deploy to different theatres. The aircraft will be outfitted with ELINT, cameras and satellite communications (SATCOM).
Command and Control
The Armée de l’Air has four recently upgraded E-3F aircraft that are assigned to Escadron de Détection et de Contrôle Aéroportées (EDCA) 0/36 ‘Berry’ based at BA702 Avord. For an overview of the French E-3F, please refer to the E-3 feature in the February 2017 issue of AIR International. The Aéronavale has three E-2C Hawkeye aircraft based at BAN Lann-Bihoué. Normally the Charles de Gaulle will have two E-2Cs on board during a deployment. The Hawkeye acts as a detection and command platform for the different aircraft assigned to the carrier group. During recent Operation Chammal deployments, the E-2Cs also provided air traffic control for the different combat aircraft that were operating in the region. The E-2C is equipped with Link 16, which allows them to share information with the different aircraft involved in a specific mission in real time. An example is the position of Russian aircraft in Syrian airspace that the E-2C crew transmits to the screens of Rafale pilots so they have increased situational awareness.
The Armée de l’Air’s fleet of 11 C-135FRs and 3 KC-135RGs has an average age of 55 years and although the serviceability of these aircraft is kept confidential because they are part of the nuclear deterrent force, the Armée de l’Air has been keen on finding a replacement for quite some time now. After years of debate, Jean Yves Le Drian said in November 2014 that France would procure 12 Airbus A330 MRTT tankers. One was ordered at that time, followed by eight in December 2015.
The first Airbus A330 MRTT, referred to as the Phénix within the Armée de l’Air, should be delivered in 2018, followed by a second in 2019. The rest of the nine aircraft currently on order (the contract for the final three of the planned 12 aircraft is expected to be signed in 2018) should be delivered at a pace of two a year, starting in 2020. These aircraft will replace the aging C-135FRs and KC-135RGs, as well as the three Airbus A310s and two Airbus A340s of the Escadron de Transport (ET) 3/60 ‘Esterel’ based at Paris Charles de Gaulle airport. The MRTT can carry almost three times the amount of fuel of the C-135FR (a total of 50 tonnes compared to 17 tonnes for the C-135FR) and can remain in the refuelling area for approximately four hours. The MRTT can also transport 271 passengers or 40 tonnes of freight and it can be configured for MEDEVAC role. In this instance, the plane can be outfitted with the Armée de l’Air’s mobile intensive care unit, called MORPHEE (MOdule de Réanimation pour Patient à Haute Élongation d’Évacuation), which includes 12 beds for seriously injured personnel. As the MRTT can travel distances of up to 14,800km (8,000nm) in the passenger configuration, the aircraft will be able to fly injured personnel home direct from all of the current areas of operation. The first MORPHEE system was delivered to the Armée de l’Air in 2006 and between 2008 and 2016, five wartime missions have been flown: one with 11 patients from Kosovo in 2008 and four missions with 12 patients from Afghanistan. But the French Phénix will be part of the nuclear deterrent force of the FAS, which means it will carry specific equipment for this role. The aircraft will also receive Link 16 and SATCOM capabilities so that it can instantly relay information from reconnaissance platforms such as the RECO NG pod to the command centre via satellite. This would mean the Armée de l’Air does not need an SRD on the ground. The current plan is to have the first aircraft delivered at what is referred to as the Mark 1 standard, with the remainder entering operations at Mark 2. The Phénix Mk1 is the basic tanker version fitted with Link 16 whereas the Phénix Mk2 will also have the SATCOM, protection suite and a large cargo door. With the first MRTT scheduled for delivery next year, preparations for its arrival started at BA125 Istres on April 15, 2017. Construction and infrastructure work is scheduled to take 18 months. Among the planned works are a complete resurfacing of the runway, which will be widened to 53m (174ft) and installation of new runway and taxiway lights.
The tactical transport fleet of the Armée de l’Air is undergoing changes, which will continue over the next few years. Following its long-term plan called ‘Unis pour faire face, Vision 2019’, Escadron de Transport (ET) 1/62 ‘Vercors’ and ET 3/62 ‘Ventoux’ moved from BA110 Creil to BA105 Evreux in the summer of 2016. The goal of this move is to restructure the transport fleet so as to regroup relevant experience and to benefit from the advantages of scale by concentrating units at the same air base. The Armée de l’Air operates the Casa CN235 in its overseas territories such as the Island of Réunion in the Indian Ocean. Three CN235-300 aircraft are deployed for Opération Barkhane in the Sahel region. The CN235-300 series was qualified in 2016 to airdrop three 800kg (1,764lb) pallets from its main ramp, which allows the aircraft to supply troops deployed on Barkhane. The CN235-200 series aircraft should be qualified in 2017.
The French transport fleet currently includes 14 C-130s, 21 C-160s, 27 CN235s and 11 A400Ms. While the A400M fleet is slowly increasing, the Transall fleet lost another three airframes in 2016. Due to the dwindling numbers, one of the two Transall squadrons at Evreux, ET 1/64 ‘Béarn’, will be deactivated this summer, leaving ET 2/64 ‘Anjou’ as the sole Transall squadron within the Armée de l’Air.
The eleventh A400M was delivered to ET 1/61 ‘Touraine’ at BA123 Orléans in January 2017. By the end of February 2017, the Armée de l’Air had six A400Ms with the basic tactical capability that the Armée de l’Air has been eagerly waiting for. Three were newly delivered (msn 033, 037 and 053) and three others were upgraded at the factory in Seville. Arrival of the first tactical standard aircraft is a sign that the A400M programme is slowly starting to move in the right direction. The six aircraft have armoured plating to protect the crew and plane and should be outfitted with flares shortly. However, more sophisticated detection and countermeasure systems, such as a missile warning system, will only be installed when each aircraft is upgraded to the next tactical standard. One of the capabilities the Armée de l’Air has been waiting for is the ability to drop cargo pallets and paratroopers. The C-130 and C-160 assigned to Barkhane regularly drop paratroopers. The A400M has a potential capacity of 116 paratroopers but because of turbulence problems when both lateral doors are open at the same time, the current certified capacity is only 30 at a time from one lateral door. On the cargo front, the A400M can currently drop pallets but this capability needs to be expanded so the aircraft can drop a variety of material under different conditions. The Armée de l’Air is also eager to qualify the A400M for unprepared and/or unhardened airstrips as current operations for Opération Barkhane are often carried out on these kinds of surfaces. Last summer, the A400M flew to Madama in Niger to test sandy airstrips and, at the end of 2016, a second series of trials took place in Mali, this time on a much harder surface with many stones being thrown up towards the aircraft. Results from the trials have been very positive. The final tactical capability is one that has been debated extensively over the last two years: aerial refuelling. The French A400Ms should soon be able to refuel from tankers and refuel fighter and transport aircraft. The capability to refuel helicopters has proven very problematic for the A400M. Due to the wake turbulence from the four powerful propeller engines, the A400M is currently unable to perform HAAR (helicopter air-to-air refuelling) operations. As a result, the Armée de l’Air decided to buy two KC-130J aircraft in 2016 to develop the HAAR capability within the Armée de l’Air. At the moment, the Armée de l’Air is dependent on American, Italian and Spanish KC-130s for refuelling its EC725 Caracal helicopters. There have been stories in the press that Airbus is currently trying to extend the refuelling hose to reduce turbulence. Time will tell how Airbus deals with this important gap in operational capability. Three more A400Ms will be delivered to the Armée de l’Air in 2017 and the 15th aircraft will follow in 2018: all 15 should be outfitted with the full tactical suite by 2019.
Despite problems with serviceability due to aging fleets and modernisation programmes (the serviceability rate of the Hercules fleet was only 23% on December 31, 2016) the French transport capacity seems to be on the mend. The A400M is slowly coming of age and is now regularly used to fly freight and personnel to and from the theatres of operations. The Barkhane area of operations is extensive and the 4,000 French personnel on the ground work in very challenging conditions. Besides having to travel long distances across the desert and mountainous terrain, troops are exposed to improvised explosive devices on a regular basis. With the A400M delivering much more goods to the bigger airfields in the region, the smaller C-130s and C-160s can then be used to deliver smaller amounts of supplies to the different forward operating bases and mobile units. According to data released by the French Ministry of Defence on April 27, the Armée de l’Air executed 48 airdrops for Opération Barkhane in 2016, delivering 258 tonnes of supplies to personnel. The vast majority of the drops (80%) took place above Abeïbara and Tessalit in the northeast of Mali, two places that are isolated and hard to reach by road. Around 20% of the goods dropped consisted of medical supplies, fuel and replacement parts for vehicles. The rest was typically food and water for the troops on the ground. Aerial drops are increasing. In the first four months of 2017, the Armée de l’Air executed 24 drops delivering106 tonnes of supplies.
The French armed forces have various flying units that are part of the Special Forces. Of these some are more visible than others. One of the more secretive units is the Groupe Aérien Mixte (GAM) 0/56 ‘Vaucluse’ at Evreux, which is a unit that operates the C-130, C-160, DHC6 Twin Otter and EC725 Caracal for the DGSE (Directorate-General for External Security). Other units are more known to the public. For instance, the Orléans-based unit ET 3/61 ‘Poitou’ which operates several C-130s and C-160s, even though their aircraft are on loan from the operational pools at Evreux and Orléans. In 2016, the DGA ordered two C-130Js and two KC-130Js in order to fill the gaps in tactical transport and HAAR capacities. The KC-130Js will refuel Armée de l’Air Caracal helicopters that are responsible for French CSAR (Combat Search and Rescue) tasking. The first French pilots will leave for the United States in 2017 to start their training on the C-130J. The new French Hercules will be based at Evreux and will be assigned to a yet-to-be-activated joint German-French squadron. On April 10, 2017 the French and German Ministers of Defence signed an intra-governmental agreement, announcing that the four C-130Js recently ordered by the Luftwaffe would be based at Evreux. This will allow for economies of scale regarding maintenance and infrastructure but according to the announcement both countries will reserve the autonomy to plan and execute their own missions. This is an important detail as the French aircraft will be used in Special Forces missions.
Helicopter units of the COS (Commandement des Opérations Spéciales) are Escadron d’Hélicoptères (EH) 1/67 ‘Pyrénées’ from the Armée de l’Air at BA120 Cazaux and the 4e Régiment d’Hélicoptères des Forces Spéciales (RHFS) from the Aviation Légère de l’Armée de Terre (ALAT) at Pau. EH 1/67 recently became a Caracalonly unit. The 4e RHFS currently operates all helicopter types that are operational with the ALAT (Caracal, Cougar Rénové, Gazelle, Puma and Tigre). However, the Caracals will be transferred to EH 1/67 in the next few years, once the 4e RHFS receives its NH90s. The Cougar Rénové and Caracal will shortly be equipped with two new weapons systems: the 20mm Nexter SH20 cannon and the FN Herstal 12.7mm M3M machine gun. These new systems will expand both the attack and self-defence capabilities of COS helicopters currently equipped with the 7.62mm MAG-58. Each helicopter will undergo minor modifications so the new systems can be plugged into the power source. Although initially planned for late 2016, both systems are still not operational.
Escadron d’Hélicoptères (EH) 1/67 ‘Pyrénées’ also has a search and rescue task. After the squadron retired its last two SA330B Pumas during a ceremony on March 10, the Caracal has taken over the SAR alert at Cazaux. One month after the departure of the Puma, the Caracal carried out its first SAR mission on April 11. The crew hoisted a crewmember with cardiac problems off a 19th century sailing boat in rough seas, before flying the patient to the hospital in Arcachon.
The ALAT operates a mix of tactical transport and attack helicopters that are assigned to 1e RHC (Régiment d’Hélicoptères de Combat) at Phalsbourg, 3e RHC at Etain and 5e RHC at Pau. Each RHC comprises a tactical, a reconnaissance and an attack battalion. Tactical battalions are equipped with the SA330 Puma (1e RHC stopped operating the Puma on March 21), the Cougar Rénové (only 5e RHC) and the NH90 (only 1e RHC) whereas the reconnaissance and attack battalions fly the SA342M Gazelle and the Tigre HAD (Hélicoptère d’Appui Destruction) or HAP (Hélicoptère d’Appui Protection). The Tigre HAP does not have the capability to destroy buildings or tanks that the Tigre HAD has. In order to have this firepower capability, the Tigre HAP flies mixed patrols with the Gazelle, which is equipped with four TOW missiles. All Tigre HAP helicopters will eventually be converted to HAD standard. Out of the 60 Tigres delivered to the ALAT so far, around 49 are currently operational. France bought 200 AGM-114 Hellfire missiles in 2015 and 200 more in March 2016. The missiles came from the US Army stock and will be used by the Tiger HAD. However, the recent Barkhane operations have shown that a Hellfire might be too heavy for the task at hand as crews typically target vehicles or other small objects; armed combatants often drive pickup trucks in open areas. Therefore, the ALAT has asked for a light missile as an alternative for the Hellfire. On July 7, 2016 the DGA ordered the development of a laser-guided 68mm missile from TDA Armements SAS. The missile should enter service in 2020, together with the first Tigre Mark 2. The Armée de Terre will also receive new drones in the next two years. Laurent Collet-Billion, the Delegate-General for armaments at the French Ministry of Defence met with the members of the Committee on National Defence and Armed Forces in October 2016 and confirmed the first of 14 Patroller tactical drones produced by SAGEM would be delivered in early 2019. The DGA had ordered the Patroller in January 2016 to replace the aging Sperwer drones. The Patroller can fly for up to 14 hours and provides the command centre with a platform for observations and intelligence gathering situated in close proximity to the battlefield. In January 2017, the DGA also ordered 35 Spy’Ranger mini-drone systems for the Armée de Terre to be delivered from 2019. The DGA also took an option on 35 additional systems. As with the MQ-9s of the Armée de l’Air, each Spy’Ranger system consists of three drones. This means the Armée de Terre will have between 105 and 210 small tactical drones. The Spy’Ranger, set to replace the aging DRAC drones, weighs just 15kg (33lb) and can be transported in a backpack. Preparing the drone takes 12 minutes and once airborne can fly up to 30km (16nm) from the ground station and can stay in the air for approximately two-and-a-half hours. According to its manufacturer (Thales) this mini-UAS is: “the only EO/IR imaging system in the world capable of transmitting highdefinition electro-optical and infrared imagery in real time.”
Carrier Air Power
France is one of a few European countries to have a carrier group. The aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle typically deploys with 24 fighters, two E-2C Hawkeyes and several helicopters embarked. After the retirement of the Dassault Super Etendard (SEM) in July 2016, the Aéronavale only operates the Rafale M. On paper the Aéronavale has 41 Rafales at its disposal although two are currently at the Dassault plant in Bordeaux-Mérignac for upgrades to the F3 standard. These aircraft are the last of the original batch of 10 F1 standard Rafale M that was delivered to Landivisiau from late 2000 onwards to fly with 12F. As with the Eurofighter, this initial version was limited to air-to-air capabilities. The ten aircraft were declared operational in 2004 but put in storage once the Rafale M F2 (with air-to-air and air-to-ground capability) were delivered so they could be upgraded directly to the F3 standard at a later date. Besides 11F and 12F, the Aéronavale recently added a third Rafale squadron: 17F. This was the final unit to operate the SEM until last year. Its pilots and mechanics gradually transferred to the other units in the months leading up the SEM’s retirement to allow for a smoother transition to the Rafale. The first Rafales with 17F insignia were seen in early 2017 and the unit is currently working up to operational status.
After its last cruise, which lasted from September until early December, the Charles de Gaulle returned to its home port of Toulon for an 18-month mid-life overhaul on December 14, 2016. This major overhaul, estimated at just over €1 billion, is the most extensive maintenance and update project since the ship entered service in 2001. Once the overhaul is finished, the Charles de Gaulle should be able to continue to operate until its retirement from service, which is planned for 2041. The absence of a carrier group for such a long period has restarted the discussion about a second French aircraft carrier, which in turn sparked many a debate during the French 2017 presidential campaign. The majority of candidates supported the idea of an additional ship. However, after the French Ministry of Defence provided information on the number of combat sorties flown from the Charles de Gaulle during its last deployment, there have also been quite a few journalists and politicians who have publicly asked if there is really a need for a carrier at all. According to the data, the carrier group tripled the number of fighter aircraft from late September to early December 2016. Howe ver, when we look at the number of combat missions flown, this multiplier does not seem to apply. During this period, six Armée de l’Air Rafales based in Jordan flew 346 sorties, whereas the six Rafales based at BA104 Al Dhafra flew 56 sorties, totalling 402 sorties. Meanwhile the 24 Rafales operating from the Charles de Gaulle flew 414 sorties. This translates into approximately 34 sorties per Rafale for the Armée de l’Air compared to around 17 sorties for each Rafale operating from the carrier.
Aéronavale Rafales will continue to take part in Opération Chammal during the midlife update of the carrier. On March 29, two Rafales from 12F landed in Jordan, followed by two more on March 31. Going forward, eight Rafales (four from the Armée de l’Air and four from the Aéronavale) will make up the Chammal deployment. It is very likely this will mean that the deployed Rafale Ms will soon fly sorties with two MBDA SCALP conventionally armed stand-off missiles (called Storm Shadow in the RAF), a new configuration for the Aéronavale. The Armée de l’Air typically fiies with a SCALP on each outer-wing station but the Aéronavale Rafale only carries one SCALP on its centreline station because this is better suited for carrier operations. As the 12F aircraft are now operating from a land base, it would be logical to validate this configuration as soon as possible because it would significantly increase the payload that the Rafale M can deliver during sorties over Iraq and Syria. Since the Armée de l’Air built specific armament bunkers at the Jordanian base last year, the SCALP has been used extensively. In the first week of April 2017, Rafales of the Chammal force fired no less than ten SCALPs.
The main task for the Atlantique 2 crews from 21 and 23F, normally based at BAN Lann-Bihoué, is maritime patrol. However, they are often deployed elsewhere. The aircraft protects French nuclear submarines and provides surveillance for the Charles de Gaulle. The Atlantique 2 Chammal deployment, operating out of Jordan since February 2016, had accumulated 1,500 flying hours on 200 sorties by early March 2017. Typical missions in the Levant include ISR and CAS. The Atlantique 2 has proven a valuable platform. The type is qualified to drop GBU-12, GBU-51 and GBU-58 bombs (four can be carried in the bomb bay) and can designate targets with its Wescam MX-20, which was done for the first time over Iraq on April 3, 2016. The serviceability problems for the Atlantique 2 fleet have previously been discussed in AIR International recently. Due to a number of problems regarding spare parts management and upgrades, the serviceability of the Atlantique 2 fell to 24% as of December 31, 2016. However, these problems are not new as the serviceability of the fleet has not been above 31% in the last five years. The Atlantique 2 will remain in service until approximately 2030. Fifteen out of the 27 airframes will be extensively upgraded in the coming years. All the upgraded aircraft will be outfitted with the Wescam MX-20 (currently only a handful of Atlantique 2 have a MX-20), the SEARCHMASTER airborne surveillance radar with an AESA-antenna, improved avionics and a latest-generation digital acoustic processing subsystem. The first upgraded Atlantique 2 should return to the Navy in 2019.
The 18th NH90 was delivered to the Aéronavale in December 2016. The helicopters are assigned to 31F at BAN Hyères and 33F, which is based at Lanvéoc- Poulmic. The Aéronavale will receive a further nine NH90s, the last of which is planned to be delivered in 2021. The NH90 replaced the Super Frelon (retired in 2010), and those Lynx helicopters that remain operational. The NH90 programme has had several setbacks. In November 2016, no fewer than 10 Aéronavale NH90s were in different stages of maintenance and updates. The helicopter joined the Charles de Gaulle carrier air group for the first time in September 2016.