The French air force has finally confirmed a long-rumoured interest in acquiring heavy-lift helicopters for special forces missions and is studying different options, including leasing a pair of Boeing CH-47F Chinooks as a trial before making any purchase.

In addition, the service hopes to shortly outline an upgrade package for its fleet of Airbus Helicopters H225M Caracals and is also working to define possible tri-service requirements for a next-generation rotorcraft post-2040.

Chinook Block II

Source: Boeing

Speaking at Defence IQ’s International Military Helicopter 2020 conference in London on 25 February, Colonel Bruno Paupy, deputy chief, plans division of the French air force, said that the Chinooks would be required to plug a “capability gap”.

Paupy says the helicopters would initially be leased, with any acquisition coming in the post-2025 period. As a Chinook purchase was not funded in France’s most recent military procurement plan, the lease model would enable the air force to skirt that potential restriction.

That timeline would also lead Paris towards the acquisition of the upgraded Block II version of the Chinook, which at present is only confirmed for the long-range MH-47G variant – a model that would also suit the air force’s intended mission.

“We want the helicopter capable of performing missions in enemy territory – so you may guess which version we want,” says Paupy.

France has already had some experience of Chinook operations, with a detachment of three Royal Air Force examples assisting army operations in Mali.

Meanwhile, in order keep its roughly 10 Caracals in service until 2040, the service is in the early stages of defining a Standard 2 version of the 11t-class helicopter, which would be fielded from around 2028-2030.

“We will have to improve its systems much more than upgrading [to tackle] obsolescence,” he says, identifying avionics, weapons, self-protection systems and the addition of a Link 16 datalink as key areas to address.

H160M-c-Airbus Helicopters

Source: Airbus Helicopters

In addition, to meet its requirements beyond 2040, the air force has begun talks with its fellow French services about the potential for launching a joint programme, similar to the Helicoptere Interarmees Leger effort that saw the eventual tri-service acquisition of the Airbus Helicopters H160M Guepard.

Paupy says that although high-speed capability will be one area of consideration, “I am not sure if it will interest the army, navy or even the air force – we are trying to make the final understanding of the need”.

However, given the air force’s concept of operations – long-range strikes into enemy territory – and long-standing expertise in helicopter aerial refuelling, Paupy says “you may understand that high velocity… should be interesting”.

Discussions with the army and air force will take place over the next 24 months; Paupy is hopeful that by the end of 2021 a joint set of requirements will have been defined.

For the air force, the Guepard will replace a fleet of 45 AS555 Fennecs from 2030. Unique features will include the addition of aerial refuelling equipment.

In addition, to help accelerate the withdrawal from service of its elderly SA330 Pumas, which are now over 40 years old, France is considering the acquisition of repurposed second-hand H225s from the commercial market.

“We are at a stage where it is very difficult to keep our Pumas for the next 10 years,” Paupy says. “We are trying to replace them as soon as possible with leasing or buying already used assets.”