Air show showcases France's front-line equipment

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Le Bourget will as usual provide an ideal platform for France's defence industry and armed forces to showcase the nation's frontline equipment and future military hardware.

With its armed forces currently engaged in combat operations in Afghanistan and also over Libya, France's air transport and in-flight refuelling fleets are currently experiencing sustained high demand, with this placing pressure on its current aged types.

The good news for the French air force is that one of its most important acquisitions - of the Airbus Military A400M - appears to be holding to its revised schedule, and its first example should be delivered by March 2013.

Making its Paris air show debut this year, the A400M will replace France's current Dassault-Breguet C160R Transalls. Fifty of the new type will be produced for the nation, with this representing almost 30% of the programme's 170-strong order book with seven European launch customers.

ACTIVE FLEET

France currently has an active fleet of 49 Transall transports, as listed in Flightglobal's MiliCAS database, but the A400M fleet will provide more than a like-for-like replacement in terms of capability. The legacy aircraft's useful payload of around 16t will be eclipsed by the new type's lift potential of up to 37t, while the latter will also provide a greatly increased range performance.

Transalls are currently involved in supporting France's operation "Harmattan" commitment to NATO's campaign to protect civilians in Libya, carrying vitally needed equipment such as air-launched weapons and spare engines to bases such as Solenzara, Corsica and Souda Bay, Crete. The air force's 14-strong fleet of Lockheed Martin C-130H tactical transports is also participating, while the service continues to provide similar support for French troops in Afghanistan.

transall - french air force
© French air force
 The air force's Transalls will make way for the A400M

With the A400M programme having suffered a roughly three-year delay to its delivery schedule - France was originally to have received its first aircraft in November 2009 - the air force has moved to plug a capacity shortfall by ordering eight more Airbus Military CN-235 medium transports.

The first two of these are now on the final assembly line at the company's San Pablo facility near Seville, Spain; the same site where the A400M is being built.

To be delivered in the -300 configuration and joining an existing fleet of 20 CN-235s, the new aircraft will complement the A400M's capabilities, says Cmdt David Spieles, chief of operations on the air force's 1/62 squadron. Deliveries will commence in late 2011, with the aircraft to be incorporated by the existing two units which operate the CN-235 from Creil air base.

Another of the air force's pressing equipment requirements is to introduce a replacement for its 14 Boeing C/KC-135 tankers. While the service has not held a formal competition, it is known to favour the Airbus A330-200-based multi-role tanker transport. The first operational example was recently delivered to Australia, and other examples are being prepared for Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and the UK.

With the provision of in-flight refuelling critical to the success of the Libyan campaign especially - Dassault Rafales operating from Solenzara face a 2h transit on either side of their combat activity - the pressure is building for Paris to sign for a replacement fleet.

"They are actively looking to launch a [tanker] contract as soon as possible from a budget perspective," says Antonio Caramazana, Airbus Military's vice-president derivative programmes. "We are discussing the feasibility of a proposal." France has already established a planned entry into service date of January 2017 to field a new fleet of tankers, Caramazana says.

tiger ec725 - thomas goisque 
© Thomas Goisque/Eurocopter
 Operations with the Tiger have included in Afghanistan and Libya

The French air force is already operating one civilian-registered A330 for VIP transport purposes. The Pratt & Whitney PW4168A-powered aircraft has been in use since 1998, says MiliCAS.

One of the future tanker's main requirements will be to support operations with the Rafale, which has so far secured orders for 180 aircraft from a planned total of 286 for the French air force (228) and navy (58). The "omnirole" type will increasingly become the backbone of France's combat aircraft fleet, and by 2030 will be the only manned fighter operated by the air force.

By this point the unmanned combat air vehicle concept is likely to have matured enough to see such systems supplement the use of manned fighters.

Dassault is currently leading Europe's Neuron UCAV demonstration programme, with the stealthy design's first flight due during 2012, but an operational capability could be the result of future collaboration with UK company BAE Systems, which has its own demonstration programme called Taranis.

In addition to their current use over Libya as part of NATO's Operation Unified Protector, air force Rafales will also from 1 August be deployed from Kandahar airfield in Afghanistan. French personnel have been involved with the latter campaign since July 2003, and around 4,000 of the nation's troops are assigned to the Alliance-led International Security Assistance Force.

AFGHANISTAN COMMITMENT

France's commitment in Afghanistan currently includes a detachment of fixed-wing assets including Dassault Mirage 2000D strike aircraft and reconnaissance-roled Mirage F1s, plus several helicopter types. These include the army's Eurocopter Tiger attack helicopter, plus AS532 transports, SA341/342 Gazelle armed liaison aircraft and EC725s for combat search-and-rescue applications.

Eurocopter has so far handed over 30 of the army's eventual 80 Tigers, and is continuing to make EC725 deliveries to the air force and navy, our HeliCAS database says.

Afghanistan has proved a tough operating environment, with attrition having been high for the French forces so far this year. The two-person crew of a Tiger escaped serious injury in early February, when their aircraft crashed during a night-time sortie being conducted in poor weather conditions. The army officially described the incident as a "hard landing" near the Afghan capital Kabul, with the wreckage subsequently recovered by a Boeing CH-47 Chinook transport helicopter.

The crew of an air force Mirage 2000D were also rescued during May after ejecting over Afghanistan. Then late on 10 June the army lost two of its helicopter pilots when a Gazelle crashed around 20km (10.8nm) away from Bagram air base.

Given its combat debut in Afghanistan in late 2009, the Tiger is now being put to the test in two theatres simultaneously for the first time. The type was earlier this month used in anger for the first time in Libya. Overnight on 3-4 June Tigers flew with a package of Gazelles from the deck of the French navy command ship the Tonnerre, and attacked targets including ground vehicles used by forces loyal to Col Muammar Gaddafi.

France's current Tigers are flown in a so-called HAP armed escort configuration, typically carrying a 30mm cannon and rocket pods. Subsequent deliveries will be made in a HAD standard, which will introduce the Lockheed Martin AGM-114 Hellfire air-to-surface missile.

Another of France's helicopter acquisitions continues to make slow progress, with the nation yet to put NH Industries' NH90 to operational use. HeliCAS lists its navy as having so far received four of its eventual 27 aircraft, while the army has yet to take delivery of any tactical transports from its 34-unit order.

Back in the fixed-wing sector, France also needs to see progress made with the Advanced European Jet Pilot Training, or Eurotraining scheme. After years of slow or no progress, it is increasingly uncertain whether this programme will ever be advanced beyond the study stage.

A possible collapse of the initiative would drive Paris to consider other options to replace its Alpha Jet trainers, potentially via some form of collaboration with defence treaty partner the UK.

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