The helicopter, 008/F-HMRE/F-WWOA (c/n 1008), which arrived at Base Aéronautique Navale (BAN) Hyères on September 22, is the first of six for an interim fleet which will be delivered by 2023. They will take over the maritime search and rescue (SAR) role from the current Caiman Marine and Panther helicopters pending delivery of the first full military variant, the H160M Guèpard Marine, in 2029.
Feedback on operational experience with the interim variant will also contribute to development of the military Guèpard version under the framework of the Hélicoptère Interarmes Léger (HIL) programme. The HIL development is being led by the DGA and will develop a single fleet of 169 light helicopters to replace five types in all three French armed services – the Air Force, Army and Navy.
A contract with Airbus Helicopters, Babcock and Safran Helicopters Engines for the first four H160Bs was announced by the manufacturer on February 10, 2020. This was followed by the announcement of a contract for a further two on May 20, 2021. They will become operational in the SAR/maritime security role from three bases – Cherbourg Airport, Normandy; BAN Hyères, Provence; and BAN Lanvéoc-Poulmic, Brittany, covering the Atlantic and Mediterranean coasts, as well as the English Channel and North Sea. Flying the H160Bs from these land bases will enable the Caiman Marine and Panther helicopters to fulfil their primary mission at sea operating aboard French Navy frigates.
Additional militarisation of the H160Bs is being undertaken by Babcock. They will be equipped with winches, modular cabins allowing an optimised layout for Action de l’Etat en Mer (AEM; State Action at Sea) missions and a Euroflir 410 optronic system. They will also be certified for night vision goggle operations. The first H160B for the French Navy had been delivered to Babcock by Airbus Helicopters in May 2022. It has since then been modified with the above equipment into a light military configuration by Babcock.