France’s Upgraded Atlantique 2s Are More Than Just Maritime Patrol Planes
The newly commissioned latest version of the Atlantique 2 maritime patrol aircraft is now equally proficient in overland missions.
The French Navy has officially reached initial operational capability with the latest version of the Atlantique 2 maritime patrol aircraft, or ATL 2, ensuring that these Cold War-era aircraft will remain at the top of their game well into the 2030s. For the French Navy, these aircraft have already proven to be remarkably versatile assets for many missions beyond their traditional primary role of hunting submarines. Even more so now with the Standard 6 upgrades, the twin-engine turboprops are equally adept at protecting its nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine (SSBN) fleet, attacking surface vessels, as well as conducting overland reconnaissance and strike missions with precision weapons.
In a statement yesterday, the French Navy, or Marine Nationale, announced that the ATL 2 Standard 6 had been declared fully operational, a milestone achieved on November 10, at Lann-Bihoué naval air base in northern France. The entry to service was signed by Adm. Pierre Vandier, France’s Chief of the Naval Staff.
“This capability milestone attests to the aircraft’s ability to conduct the entire spectrum of missions assigned to it,” Adm. Vandier said.
A statement from the French Navy added that “this in-depth renovation of the Atlantique 2 makes it a competitive tool in the face of modern threats. Until the end of their service life, in 2035, the 18 aircraft upgraded to Standard 6 will enable France to remain at the level of its most capable allies.”
At this point, nine of the ATL 2s have been upgraded to Standard 6 and returned to service with the French Navy. The process of working toward full operational capability began two years ago, after the declaration of initial operational capability. Now, however, the platform is judged suitable to undertake the entire spectrum of missions assigned to it.
The ATL 2 was originally developed with anti-submarine warfare (ASW) as its primary mission, with the first prototype flying on May 8, 1981. However, the design was a reworking of the original Breguet 1150 Atlantic, originally flown 20 years earlier and intended to provide a common ASW platform for European NATO operators. The first-generation Atlantic initially served with the French, German, Italian, and Dutch militaries, with examples also eventually exported to Pakistan.
Now a Dassault Aviation product, the ATL 2 was procured by the French Navy only. The first of 28 examples were delivered in 1989 and, compared with the Atlantic, the aircraft offered much improved ASW capabilities to deal with a new generation of quieter and faster submarines, as well as upgraded abilities to operate in the anti-surface warfare (ASuW) role against enemy warships.
With a range of 4,300 nautical miles or endurance of 14 hours, as well as generous capacity for equipment, stores, and crew stations, the ATL 2 has proved highly suitable for further growth. In the process, it’s matured from a fairly limited ASW mission profile to an asset that’s just as useful for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) and even strike missions overland.
The Standard 6 modernization program was launched in 2013 and is focused on avionics improvements, including an updated active electronically scanned array Thales Searchmaster surveillance radar, a new MX-20 sensor turret with electro-optical and infrared cameras as standard, a new digital acoustic processing system, and a new tactical computer. The typical crew of 14 (including four in the cockpit) is provided with new consoles for the tactical display and navigation subsystems.
At the same time, of course, other sensors from the pre-upgraded aircraft are retained. These include the passive and active sonobuoys, a forward-looking infrared (FLIR) camera under the nose separate from the new MX-20 that is primarily used to detect surface targets, the magnetic anomaly detector (MAD) in the tail for acquiring submerged submarines, and the wingtip electronic support measures (ESM) pods to intercept radio transmissions.
Upgrade work is being undertaken by Dassault in conjunction with the defense ministry’s Service Industriel de l’Aéronautique (SIAé), which conducts maintenance and modernization on behalf of the French Armed Forces.
The Standard 6 version of the ATL 2 has already been exposed to operational environments in the Baltic Sea, in the central and eastern Mediterranean, in the Indian Ocean or in the Gulf of Guinea, as well as in the French approaches, for homeland defense including protection of the SSBN fleet and the aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle.
Perhaps the most remarkable change in the ATL 2’s mission profile has been to embrace operations overland, including taking part in counter-insurgency campaigns in the Middle East and in West Africa. Critical to success in this has been the MX-20 electro-optical package, which began to be fitted in a ‘ball’ under the rear fuselage of some ATL 2s ahead of Standard 6.
The gyroscopic MX-20 turret contains four different cameras, all with relatively high definition to identify points of interest. The system is primarily employed during overland missions, including for ISR.
“We are the only French aircraft equipped with so much imagery and electromagnetic surveillance kit and able to stay in the area for so long — up to 14 hours on task,” the commanding officer of one of the two ATL 2 squadrons told AirForces Monthly in 2019. “That allows us to assess information, to reinforce it, to make sure that it’s a target that needs dealing with and to release weapons.”
The same turret is also used for laser designation, allowing the ATL 2 to deliver up to four U.S.-made Paveway series laser-guided bombs, including 500-pound GBU-12/B or 250-pound GBU-58/B types, by itself. Prior to the addition of the MX-20, the ATL 2 could drop these bombs, but it required target designation by another aircraft, a drone, or a Joint Terminal Attack Controller (JTAC) on the ground.
With two GBU-12/Bs in the stores bay, the ATL 2’s endurance is only reduced by 15 minutes, allowing it to remain on patrol for an impressive duration, for example, gathering imagery and other intelligence data and transmitting it to other assets via satellite communications, while waiting for any targets of opportunity that might present themselves.
One other little-known aspect of the ATL 2’s overland mission set is its ability to deliver marine commando parachutists. This is achieved by converting a hatch in the rear of the fuselage into a slide.
The fact that the ATL 2 has proven such a good fit for supporting overland counter-terrorism missions has meant that it has been much more active in this role rather compared to more traditional specialties like ASW over the past two decades or so. In the process, the aircraft has also taken part in some high-profile incidents. For example, an ATL 2 deployed in the West African country of Niger was used to help find French hostages in January 2011 at a site near the border with neighboring Mali. There followed a rescue effort involving French special forces and three Cougar helicopters, although the two young hostages were sadly killed in the process.
Despite how important the ATL 2s have been to French operations in recent years, the process of declaring full operational capability for the improved Standard 6 has not been without delay. The French Navy began to assess the aircraft’s readiness for service in December 2020 after an operational evaluation campaign by its flight test center. At that point, full operational capability was expected to follow in late 2021.
With the Standard 6 upgrade work now at the halfway point, the remaining nine aircraft are due to be redelivered by 2024.
There is currently a question mark over a long-term successor to the ATL 2. Previously, France and Germany, the latter of which currently flys P-3C Orions in the maritime patrol role, were expected to replace their respective fleets with a common platform. This new aircraft was to be developed under the Maritime Airborne Warfare System, or MAWS, which would also have included a full suite of sensors, weapons, and complementary drones.
However, Berlin’s decision to acquire five P-8A Poseidon aircraft has thrown that plan into doubt. While the P-8 has been officially described as an interim solution, to keep MAWS alive, it’s highly plausible that Germany might simply stick with the Poseidon long-term.
That could leave France to go it alone with the development of a separate ATL 2 replacement, which would be expected to enter service starting in 2035. Already, Dassault has proposed a maritime patrol version of its Falcon 10X bizjet, although the French Navy may well prefer the additional performance and capacity offered by a platform based on the Airbus A320neo twin-jet airliner, previously offered as a MAWS candidate. It will be interesting to see if the designated successor for the ATL 2 incorporates some of the multi-mission capabilities it now offers, in addition to ASW and ASuW. This changing mission spectrum for maritime aircraft is an issue that The War Zone has looked at in the past, in relation to the P-8, specifically.
Either way, it looks like France will ultimately lose its turboprop maritime patrol capability in favor of jet-powered equipment. But with much still to be decided, it’s possible the ATL 2 may have to continue in service beyond its planned retirement date.
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