Extra funds will compensate for a maintenance funding dearth since the 1990s

The French government has earmarked €90 million ($88 million) of an extra €908 million in the revised 2002 defence budget to maintain combat aircraft at operational levels to address a funding shortfall since the 1990s.

"It is vital that we make a significant effort, given that the maintenance budget fell 13% between 1997 and 2002," says defence minister Michèle Alliot-Marie. The ministry aims to get 67% of equipment operationally available by the end of the year against just 50% now.

The Dassault Mirage 2000 fleet gets €80 million of the budget because it is "10% below the assigned availability target", armed forces chief of staff, Gen Jean-Pierre Kelche, recently told the defence commission of the National Assembly. A further €10 million goes to the relatively new Northrop Grumman E-2C Hawkeye surveillance aircraft to ensure regular maintenance.

Surprisingly, none of the money is specifically earmarked to solve problems highlighted in a report issued last month in which the French senator Serge Vin‡on says the army's light aviation (ALAT) "suffers from the insufficient availability of the aircraft and the crews' lack of training".

With 409 helicopters ALAT has 70% of the French armed forces' fleet, 265 of which are Aerospatiale Gazelle combat helicopters. Their operational availability was above 70% last year, but fell to just 40% early this year after two accidents led to the entire fleet being grounded for 10 days. France is due to begin taking delivery of Eurocopter Tigers in the next six months.

The "critical" situation, Vinçon says, concerns the 144 transport helicopters, comprising 101 Eurocopter Pumas (with an average age of 21 years) and 21 Eurocopter Cougars (average age of 10 years). From 2011 they will be replaced by the NH Industries NH90. "Until then we will rely on old helicopters, which will progressively decline," says Vinçon.

The Pumas were 50% available in early 2001 and are now at around 60% along with the Cougars.

Source: Flight International