Unmanned, co-operation and a farewell tour

FRANCE

Mirage 2000N 356/125-BX was one of the aircraft from EC 2/4 ‘La Fayette’ that went on a farewell tour across France in April.
Jan Kraak

THE EVOLVING intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities of the Armée de l’Air were discussed at length when the service’s Commander in Chief, General Lanata, appeared for the Senate committee for foreign affairs, defence and the armed forces on April 4. The French are acquiring more unmanned aerial systems, eight King Air 350 light ISR aircraft and will also replace the C-160G Gabriel by 2025 with three Dassault Falcons under the Capacité Universelle de Guerre Electronique (CUGE) programme. The Gabriel were scheduled for retirement in 2023, but Lanata said the Air Force is currently considering extending their operational life by two years in order to prevent a capability gap during the transition to the CUGE-platform. General Lanata explained the arrival of the anticipated batches of MQ-9 Reapers, combined with the future European MALE (Medium Altitude Long Endurance) unmanned aerial system, will quadruple the French drone-intelligence capacity over the next decade or so. Lanata also said he had decided to create a surveillance wing at BA709 Cognac from 2019 to support the expansion. The Armée de l’Air currently operates two batches of Block 1 MQ-9s and will receive two additional Block 5 batches next year. With the recent retirement of the Harfang, Escadron de Drones (ED) 1/33 ‘Belfort’ is now focusing on the training of personnel on the Reaper and expansion of the system’s capabilities. Until now, the French have been dependent on US facilities for crew training. At the start of French Reaper operations, ED 1/33 personnel were deployed to the United States and Niger for eight months on average each year. According to General Lanata the Air Force now has 15 qualified Reaper crews. In order to be more autonomous with crew training and to accelerate the growth of the French Reaper community a mission simulator will be delivered to Cognac in the second half of 2018. Florence Parly, the minister of defence, had announced late last year that the French Reapers will receive armament capabilities in the near future. General Lanata told the Senate committee there were no problems at this stage, and that the Direction générale de l’armement (DGA or French procurement agency) is waiting for a proposal from the United States, which is planned for this summer.

Reaper service entry is planned for either 2019 or 2020. General Lanata added that he is hoping the armed capabilities will be delivered at the same time as the two Block 5 batches next year.

Signals intelligence (SIGINT) is another capability that will be added to the Reaper fleet. According to Lanata, the delay in acquiring this capability is due to administrative delays in the United States. A revised timeline anticipates an order for the SIGINT systems in 2019 and a delivery in 2020. There was also unmanned systems-related news from the Armée de Terre.

According to General Bosser, the Commander in Chief of the Armée de Terre who also appeared before the Senate committee on April 4, his service will receive its first three tactical unmanned aerial systems (14 aircraft) in 2025.

French-German cooperation

Besides a new European MALE unmanned aerial system presented to the press at this year’s ILA air show in Berlin, there were several joint French-German programmes that have been in the news over the last month. First is the modernization of the Tigre attack helicopter to Mark 3 standard.

Florence Parly announced on May 2, that France will start this modernization programme, which will see Germany joining at a later stage. A key development for the Mark 3 attack helicopter will be the European MAST-F air-to-ground missile; a common weapon that will replace the three different missile types currently used by France, Germany and Spain.

After a three-decade career with the Forces Aériennes Stratégiques, the Mirage 2000N will be retired from operational service this summer.
Jan Kraak
Although the French C-135FRs are among the oldest operational airframes in the world, they are a key element in long range strikes, such as the one over Syria on April 14.
Jan Kraak

Second is a joint C-130J Hercules squadron, which will be based at BA105 Evreux from 2021. The Defense Security Cooperation Agency announced on May 4 that the German government could order three C-130Js and three KC-130Js. Luftwaffe Hercules will operate alongside the four Armée de l’Air J-models. The third program concerns a future maritime patrol aircraft that will replace the current French Atlantique 2 and German P-3 Orion aircraft. Florence Parly and her German counterpart Ursula von der Leyen signed a letter of intent to start a joint programme for the maritime patrol aircraft replacement. An outline of system requirements is expected by next year.

Last but not least the French will start working with the Germans on a future fighter aircraft. General Lanata explained on April 4 that the choice to cooperate was logical as both countries have similar needs and fast jet fleets (Rafale and Mirage 2000D compared to Eurofighter and Tornado), all of which will have to be replaced in the same timeframe.

Mirage 2000N farewell tour

The operational career of the Mirage 2000N is near. The final four-month deployment of the type ended in the last week of March. Two Mirage 2000Ns and approximately 40 personnel from Escadron de Chasse (EC) 2/4 ‘La Fayette’ had been deployed to N’Djamena in Chad. Beside mechanics and armourers, there were three aircrews at N’Djamena. During this final deployment, the Mirage 2000N flew around 125 hours per month. Ten or so remaining airframes based at BA125 Istres, will continue to fly for a few more weeks. In late April EC 2/4 visited seven French airbases during a farewell tour. Mirage 2000Ns 356/125-BX and 373/125- CF visited BA721 Rochefort (April 23), BA709 Cognac (April 24), Cazaux (April 25) and BA118 Mont de Marsan (April 26). A second pair (358/125-BQ and 366/125-BC) flew to BA116 Luxeuil (April 24), BA133 Nancy (April 25) and BA113 Saint-Dizier (April 26). The visits allowed Armée de l’Air personnel at the different bases to see the Mirage 2000N one last time, discuss its service career with EC 2/4 crews and to buy memorabilia at the squadron stand.

Besides the four new Hercules that the Armée de l’Air will receive over the next two years, its 14-aircraft C-130H/ C-130H-30 fleet will be modernized as well.
Jan Kraak

Operational updates

The joint airstrikes that took place on April 14 as a reply to the suspected chemical attacks in Syria were well covered in the media. The Armée de l’Air sent an impressive strike package from the French mainland to positions off the Syrian coast. Five Rafales, each carrying two Scalp conventionallyarmed stand-off missiles, took off from BA113 Saint-Dizier. These strikers were escorted by four Mirage 2000-5s from BA116 Luxeuil. Accompanying the large contingent of fighters were five C-135FR tankers and two E-3F AWACS that departed from BA702 Avord. Besides aircraft, five French Navy ships were also positioned off the Syrian coast. The French contingent (the UK and US also participated) had two assigned targets: both were destroyed. The combined French air and naval strike force fired 12 missiles; nine Scalp missiles (out of ten carried) from the Rafale fighters, and three MDCNs (Missile De Croisière Naval). This was the first time the French Navy had fired MDCN missiles during a combat operation. There was a lot of discussion in the French press as to what happened to the tenth missile which seems to have suffered a guidance system technical issue.

Away from the pre-planned strike in Syria, Opérations Barkhane and Chammal continued in April. The Chammal deployment flew between 21 and 28 sorties each week from April 4 to May 1. Fast jet contingents deployed to N’Djamena and Niamy (Niger) and assigned to Opération Barkhane carried out a third of the 90 to 102 sorties flown each week in the same timeframe. The other sorties involved ISR or transport aircraft.

During the week of April 21, the Armée de l’Air deployed its first C-130J to N’Djamena, this allowed the service to see how the C-130J handles in hot and sandy environments. The aircraft flew from BA123 Orléans to Chad with 12 tonnes of freight and personnel. According to an Air Force press release the C-130J transported more than twice the capacity of a C-160 during this flight, which furthermore took three hours less compared to the venerable Transall. The C-130J went on to transport 17 tonnes of freight from N’Djamena to Niamey before returning home to Orléans. General Lanata told the senators in April that by 2025 the Armée de l’Air will have 25 A400Ms, four C-130Js and 14 modernized H-model Hercules.