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The French Army

On the Front Lines in Africa

Introduction

The French Armed Forces are currently undertaking wide-scale military operations in Africa, and rotorcraft from Airbus Helicopters are being deployed on the front line.

Article and Photos: F. Lert

 

France launched Operation Epervier in Chad in 1986 to help secure the country’s northern borders. In 2013, another French military operation, Serval, was launched in Mali to halt the advance of Islamic militants. The two operations have now been combined to form a larger military action that spans the Sahel-Saharan strip, beginning in Mauritania to the west and extending through, Mali, Niger and Chad in the east.

The lack of infrastructure in this vast territory makes it particularly difficult to travel by road. It’s hardly surprising then that the helicopter has become the first choice for tactical engagements in the theater. As of January 2015, approximately 50 helicopters from the French Army and Air Force were serving in Africa. Many different rotorcraft are involved: Gazelles and Pumas have been joined by new-generation models such as the Tiger, the upgraded Cougar, the Caiman and the Caracal.

Confidence

The year 2014 was a particularly busy one. The first upgraded Cougars from the Fifth Combat Helicopter Regiment (RHC) based in Pau arrived in Mali last April. They were followed by the first NH90 “Caimans” from the First RHC based in Phalsbourg, which were deployed in early November.

The excellent endurance and optimized navigation systems of the NH90s enabled them to fly under their own power from their base in France to their final destination in Gao, in northern Mali. They flew over 5,000 kilometers during the voyage, which included 11 ferry flights and a total of 32 flight hours. The Caimans were operating at their maximum takeoff weight of 11,000 kg, carrying three 450-kg ferry fuel tanks in the cabin to extend their endurance to approximately five hours.

“One of the great advantages of the Caiman is its onboard computers, which precisely indicate the current fuel consumption based on the altitude, speed and weight of the helicopter,” reported the ALAT crews. “The data is very reliable, which makes it much easier for the flight commander to manage the mission. We can even display how much ‘play time’ is remaining during our mission.”

After more than two months in Gao (November 2014 to January 2015), the Caimans had logged more than 140 flight hours, including 30 percent at night, and had an availability rate of 80 percent. After an initial phase during which the flight crews became familiar with their new surroundings and received their qualification for takeoffs and landings in dust-laden environments, the two helicopters were finally able to cut their teeth, and have now been integrated in day-to-day operations.

“The Sahel region is extremely harsh for our helicopters—not only because of the heat, but also due to the extremely abrasive sand we encounter in the field,” explained one of the flight engineers from the 1st RHC. “We spend a lot of time on preventive maintenance to reduce part wear. The logistics set-up is extremely complex so we have to rely on our own methods. For example, we use a vacuum cleaner on the most exposed areas, such as the air inlets and the rotor, to remove as much sand buildup as possible.”

The helicopters were also fitted with special equipment before leaving France: a sand filter on the APU, protective film on the windshield, special paint on the leading edges of the blades, and reinforced seals on the hinged cowlings.

The two Caimans in Gao are serving alongside the half-dozen Caracals and upgraded Cougars deployed in Mali, Niger and Chad. The Cougar may be the oldest of the three helicopters, but its flight crews know they can still count on the tried and tested aircraft for tactical transport missions.

“The Cougar’s quite light for its class, giving it an excellent power-to-weight ratio,” said one of the flight commanders from the Fifth RHC. “The upgrades have increased its operational capabilities, but the payload had to be slightly decreased. The additional 650-liter fuel tanks in the sponsons have increased the total fuel quantity to nearly 2,000 kg, enough for approximately four hours of flight. That’s exceptional for a helicopter in this class.”

The new FLIR has also been particularly appreciated—especially in a theater of operations such as Mali, where reconnaissance missions are extremely important.

Success

But our story would hardly be complete without the Tiger. After Afghanistan and Libya, Operation Serval in 2013 offered the combat helicopter another occasion to demonstrate its remarkable performances and capacity to withstand enemy fire.

Operation Barkhane has only confirmed all the good things that have been said about the helicopter, which plays a key role in French strategy in the region. With its internal fuel tanks alone, the Tiger offers endurance of over 2 h 30 min. The Tiger set a record in 2013 when it performed a mission lasting 4 h 25 min with a single ferry tank. This impressive endurance is right in line with the capabilities of the tactical helicopters the Tiger accompanies.

In addition to its 30 mm gun, well known for its accuracy, the helicopter has been equipped with the Hellfire missiles of the Tiger HAD, which has also been deployed in Africa (see text box). Five Tigers are currently serving in Africa, and may be joined by a sixth during 2015. The price of success…

Further South: Operation Sangaris

A separate operation from Barkhane in the Sahel is currently underway in the Central African Republic: Operation Sangaris. Once again, a significant contingent of helicopters has proven to be essential to cover a vast territory lacking infrastructure.

The French Air Force is operating two Fennecs armed with 20 mm guns out of its base in Bangui, while the French Army has deployed four Gazelles and six Pumas. Two Tiger HADs equipped with Hellfire missiles also joined the theater last November. This is the first operational deployment for the ALAT’s two new Tigers, and they have proven to be more than up to the task.

They have been used throughout the country to escort convoys, perform reconnaissance missions, and when necessary to combine forces with ground troops. They’ve already spent several days far away from their home base, moving between locations in the field with the ground troops. In addition to its Gazelles, the French Command wanted a helicopter with increased fire power and endurance that could offer rapid response times. The Tiger HAD has proven to be just what they were looking for.