THE FIRST FRENCH army combat helicopters, to be equipped with a dedicated air-defence missile, have entered service with the country's 1st Air Combat Regiment, based at Phalsbourg.

Over the next nine months, 30 Aerospatiale Gazelles equipped with the Matra Mistral light air-to-air missile will be delivered to three squadrons belonging to the 4th air mobile division, based at Phalsbourg (near Strasbourg), Compiegne and Pau.

The arrival of the Mistral-armed Gazelles follows a nine-year development programme and, says the commander of the 4th airmobile division, Gen Charles-Henri de Monchy, will be a "credible defence against all airborne threats, fast or slow, day or night". The missile will also equip French Tiger combat helicopters when the type enters service in 2003.

The Gazelles can each carry up to four missiles, and can fire two in quick succession, with a minimum delay of 2.5s (with the seeker pre-cooled). The missile seeker can be pre-oriented towards the suspected target, and fired off-boresight.

French Gazelles equipped with Mistrals were in action in the Gulf War after four aircraft were converted in the two-month crash programme carried out by Matra. They were never fired in anger.

Firing tests carried out during the current air-to-air Mistral programme resulted in a 94% success rate, says the French missile producer. Matra hopes that the UK will purchase the missile for its Apache anti-tank helicopters, despite the British Army's nominal commitment to the Shorts Starstreak.

Shorts and McDonnell Douglas plan a full test of the Starstreak/Apache at the end of the year. "We believe that the UK will order a three-way competition with the Mistral, Starstreak and Sidewinder after that," says Matra, adding that the British Army has been "very impressed" with the simplicity of the Mistral firing system.

Source: Flight International