France’s Aéronautique Navale (Fleet Air Arm) has ordered a further two Airbus Helicopters H160s, which will be delivered to the service in a search and rescue (SAR) configuration.
The European helicopter manufacturing giant announced the deal on May 20, stating that France’s Direction Générale de l’Armament (DGA, General Armament Directorate) has confirmed an option to Airbus Helicopters, Babcock and Safran Helicopter Engines for the additional two helicopters. These newly ordered examples will join four H160s – for which a contract with the DGA has been announced by Airbus Helicopters on February 10, 2020. The first of these is already being assembled on the production line in Marignane, France.
All six H160s will be delivered to the French Navy in a SAR configuration. The helicopters will gradually begin operating from Base d’Aéronautique Navale (BAN, Naval Air Base) Lanveoc-Poulmic, Brittany; Cherbourg Airport, Normandy and BAN Hyères, Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur (Provence-Alps-French Riviera). These helicopters will provide an interim capability pending the arrival of the fully military-configured H160M Guépard (Cheetah) variant, which is being developed under France’s Hélicoptère Interarmées Léger (HIL, Joint Light Helicopter) programme.
These interim H160s will take over the SAR missions currently being conducted by the French Fleet Air Arm’s Airbus Helicopters AS565 SA Panther fleet and NHIndustries NH90 NATO Frigate Helicopters (NFHs) – which are known as the Caïman in operational service. The introduction of the H160 will allow these combat helicopters to fulfil their primary tasks onboard naval vessels at sea. The operational feedback with these H160s will benefit the design of the militarised variant of the platform and its associated support system.
When operational, the H160s will be maintained and equipped by Babcock in partnership with Airbus Helicopters and Safran Helicopter Engines, ensuring the highest level of availability for the French Fleet Air Arm and the continuity of SAR operations on the Atlantic and Mediterranean coasts. Built by Airbus Helicopters, these six H160s will be equipped with a winch and a modular cabin that can be optimised for each specific mission.
They will be certified to use night vision goggles, which is a requirement for winching operations after dark. The six helicopters will be modified into a light military configuration by Babcock – a provider of critical, complex engineering services to governments. During which, the firm will integrate the Safran Electronics & Defense Euroflir 410 new-generation ultra-long-range electro-optical (EO) system.
Ultimately, the French armed forces plan to acquire a total of 169 H160M Guépards under the HIL programme. These helicopters will replace five currently operational rotorcraft fleets across all three military branches. As per current plans, the Aviation Légère de l’Armée de Terre (ALAT, French Army Air Corps) will receive 80 H160Ms; the Armée de l'Air et de l'Espace (AAE, French Air and Space Force) will operate 40 examples and the French Fleet Air Arm will maintain a fleet of 49 Guépards.