The French Army Eyes All-New Fleet of Light Attack Airplanes

The head of the service's aviation arm is eager to get modern choppers, too, but says fixed-wing planes make more sense in various situations.

Pilatus

The French Army is in the process of defining the armament and other characteristics of its future Airbus H160M helicopters, which will replace its aging Aérospatiale SA342 Gazelles in the armed scout role. At the same time, particularly given the demands of France’s broad counter-terrorism campaign in Northwest Africa, the service is looking at light attack aircraft to supplement scout and gunship helicopters in certain circumstances and as cost-effective alternative to expensive multi-role combat aircraft. 

According to a report by Flight Global, the French Army is looking at a version of the still-in-development H160M that will have provisions for a forward-firing 20mm cannon, two door-mounted 7.62mm machine guns, and the ability to launch laser-guided 70mm rockets. This largely mirrors the existing weapon options for the SA342, but would also give the new helicopters a low-cost precision guided munitions capability. Earlier in 2018, Airbus launched the first Thales FZ275 laser guided rockets from an H145M helicopter with a similar weapons package, called the HForce, which also includes an L3 MX-15D sensor turret with electro-optical and infrared cameras and a laser designator.

The French Army already has a “box full of ideas” about what it will do with H160Ms, Lieutenant General Michel Grintchenko, chief of the French Army Light Aviation branch, or Aviation Légère de l’Armée de Terre or ALAT, said at a conference in London on Jan. 31, 2018, according to Flight Global. The senior officer was also “confident” that he would be able to replace each of his approximately 80 Gazelles with a new helicopter.

In March 2017, the French government announced plans to procure as many as 190 of the new choppers from Airbus to replace the Gazelles, as well as Dauphin, Panther, and Fennec across all arms of the country’s military under the Inter-service Light Helicopter program, also known by its French acronym HIL. That project also involves upgrades to the service’s Tiger gunship helicopters and the acquisition of more NH90 transport choppers to supplant older Puma and Cougar types.

But when it comes to the SA342, beyond just being a more modern aircraft – the original Gazelle prototype first flew in 1967 – the H160M also has two engines instead of one and will have significantly greater range and payload capacity over the older helicopters. Grintchenko said that this could open up the possibility of using them for light transport, medical evacuation and command and control functions.

All of these capabilities could be especially useful for France with regards to its sprawling counter-terrorism effort across the Sahel region of Africa, the scrubland zone that divides North Africa and the Sahara Desert from the true sub-Saharan parts of the continent. At present, French troops operate from Mauritania, through Mali and Niger, all the way to Chad, with forces in each of those countries, as other locations in the region, as part of a mission dubbed Operation Barkhane. They are engaged in active conflict with a variety of Al Qaeda and ISIS-linked terrorist groups, as well as local militants.

Airbus

One of Airbus' H160 prototypes, which will serve as the basis for the militarized H160M.

The entire region is notably austere, with operations often occurring in remote areas far from large established bases in major population centers. Helicopters and other aircraft have become essential to supporting those activities, with the French often forming temporary air-land task forces to conduct long distance patrols through so-called “ungoverned spaces.” This term applies to areas where formal governments have little presence, giving terrorists and other armed groups, as well as criminal elements, places to flourish.

But given the nature of the terrain, the ALAT is becoming increasingly of the view that helicopters might not be the best tool for all situations and that relying on fast-moving French Air Force multi-role fighter jets to provide additional support simply isn’t practical or cost effective. Lieutenant General Grintchenko revealed to a gathering in London that he was actively looking at acquiring a fleet of manned, fixed wing light attack aircraft to supplement his rotary wing fleet.

“Why do I need to use a helicopter to do this particular mission; it has to be because I have something to do on the ground [and need to land in a confined area],” the ALAT’s commander posited, according to a separate report from Jane’s. “If I don’t need to do anything on the ground [such as area surveillance or close air support], then why don’t I use a fixed-wing aircraft instead? It is much cheaper.”

France has already seen the limitations in its existing posture as it rushed to support American forces caught in an ambush in Niger in October 2017. It took an hour for French forces in that country’s capital Niamey to get Mirage 2000 jets over the battlefield. It took even longer for Tiger gunships and Puma transport helicopters, some which had to fly in from neighboring Mali, to arrive on the scene, by which time four U.S. Army soldiers were dead.

Grintchenko did not specify any particular aircraft he was interested in buying, but he has no shortage of possible options. The French Air Force has ordered a number of Pilatus PC-21 turboprop trainers, a type that could potentially serve as the basis for a light attack platform. The French Army could potentially find a way to leverage that existing deal for its own needs.

Adrian Pingstone via Wikimedia

A Pilatus PC-21 trainer.

The ALAT also has a small number of PC-6 light utility aircraft, an older type that the U.S. Air Force briefly experimented with in an armed configuration in the 1970s and that went on to serve as a light attacker with the Royal Thai Air Force afterwards. Those aircraft are now out of production, though there are a significant number of them available on the second-hand market.

There has otherwise been a renaissance of sorts for light attack aircraft in recent years in general, even among larger air forces, such the U.S. Air Force. That service is in the midst of its own experiment with these types of aircraft, which has examined a variety of options presently on the market, ranging from low-cost jets to armed turboprop trainers to modified crop dusters. That future of that program remains uncertain, though.

Z3144228 via Wikimedia

A Royal Thai Air Force AU-23 Peacemaker light attack aircraft, based on the Pilatus PC-6, in 2013.

Any of those options could offer the ALAT much more flexibility to respond to contingencies, especially in Africa. They would almost certainly offer greater range, speed, and a heavier armament compared to armed scout or gunship helicopters.

As such, they would be able to orbit over particular areas for longer periods of time. Coupled with lightweight sensors, such as electro-optical or infrared cameras and the same low-cost laser-guided rocket capability the French Army plans for its armed choppers, these aircraft could be even more formidable weapons.

This would also reduce the need to rely on the much more expensive to operate Mirage 2000s and Rafale fighter jets for longer range missions and to provide rapid support in the event of an ambush or other crisis. Lower- and slower-flying light attackers might just be better suited to providing close air support in certain circumstances, too. During the October 2017 ambush in Niger, French pilots reported that they did not engage the enemy forces in part because of a fear of accidentally hitting the American troops with their laser-guided bombs.

The French military already has some historical experience mixing armed helicopters and light attack aircraft together, too. During its counter-insurgency campaign in Algeria in the 1950s and 1960s, the French Air Force formed dedicated light attack squadrons to complement ALAT fixed-wing and helicopter units. The combined force operated a variety of armed trainers and other modified aircraft during the conflict.

USAF

A French Rafale multi-role fighter jet links up with an American aerial refueling tanker during a mission over Iraq in 2017. 

It’s not clear when the French Army might actually get any H160Ms or light attack aircraft, though. Airbus has run into a number of delays with the H160 series of helicopters as a whole.

The European aviation consortium had originally said it would deliver the first civilian models to buyers some time in 2016, but now doesn’t expect the initial prototypes to even receive a flight certification until 2019. This delay was likely a factor in the French Navy’s decision to go ahead and scrap its dated Alouette III helicopters, another type the militarized H160M was supposed to replace, and lease additional AS365 Dauphins in the meantime.

On top of that, the French government had itself expected the new helicopters would arrive in 2024, but the country’s new President Emmanuel Macron then proposed cutting military spending after entering office in 2017. Following the resignation of the Armed Forces Chief of Staff, General Pierre de Villiers, in protest, Macron changed course, promising to boost the country’s defense budget by more than $2 billion, with a significant portion going to paying for overseas operations.

Exactly how these shifts have affected the country’s long term military procurement plans will likely become clear when France releases details about the latest plan to fund the military, expected to come later in 2018. If Grintchenko has been as vocal behind the scenes as he was in London, the French Army’s aviation arm might end up looking very different over the next six years.

Contact the author: jtrevithickpr@gmail.com