French navy unveils major upgrade for Panther helicopter

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France has unveiled details of a mid-life upgrade of the Eurocopter AS565 Panther that will substantially enhance the capabilities of an aircraft playing a key role in anti-piracy operations in the Indian Ocean.

An aircraft sporting some of the upgrade elements appeared for the first time in public at a briefing at the French Mediterranean naval base of Hyères with a new digital cockpit.

Test pilot Cdr Guillaume Guitard says the objective of the programme is to give the type "significantly increased operational capability" in line with its new missions addressing threats such as piracy and narcotics smuggling.

He says: "We have done a lot of standalone improvements like datalinking and a sniper system. But now it is quite old and we expect to have an upgrade according to the new missions."

Particular concerns addressed by the €80 million ($110 million) programme are the aircraft's lack of night-vision goggle compatibility, ageing communications fit, and relatively light offensive and defensive equipment.

Arnaud de Michelis, programme manager for France's DGA procurement agency, says: "I think we have managed to provide a very nice package for the French navy. I strongly believe that this aircraft is going to be a revolution for the French navy, both in terms of how the crew will work together and the way the fleet will use this aircraft as a tool."

 
© Eurocopter

Panthers are deployed on three frigates in active anti-piracy operations off the East African coast, as well as other deployments in the Caribbean on counter-narcotics work and elsewhere. They were involved in recent operations in which 22 pirates were arrested at sea.

The new cockpit (pictured below) is NVG-compatible and includes a 10in (255mm) screen in the middle of the panel, which is used mainly to display forward-looking infrared (FLIR) or tactical information to be shared between the two pilots.

 
© Kieran Daly

The electro-optics developed by Sagem now include a Euroflir 410 FLIR mounted on the left-hand side due to the chin-mounted radar, television and a laser telemeter.

Communications upgrades consist of a new tactical radio with anti-jamming and a Link 11 datalink primarily for passing sensor data to the frigate operating the helicopter via the tactical situation system in the rear cabin.

Flight-testing of the whole package, developed by French government operational support agency SIAé, is due to start flight-testing in October.

A second package, based on the Eurocopter Tiger, is a self-protection system including a Thales radar warning receiver, EADS laser and missile warning, and an MBDA flare dispenser. Flight-testing of that package is due by the end of next year.

The first aircraft without the self-protection system is due for delivery in mid-2010 and the first three aircraft will be modified by Eurocopter. SIAé, which already performs the maintenance on the Panther fleet, will handle the rest.

Early examples are expected to take about 11 months each, including the standard maintenance work, but later aircraft should take only around six months ensuring that the 16 helicopters are delivered with the self-protection system between mid-2012 and mid-2014.