French helicopters in combat

Security in the Afghan capital of Kabul has seen further tightening in recent weeks coinciding with the start of a Loya Jirga – or grand council – meeting on November 16. The three-day event, involving 2,000 delegates – including some from Iran and Pakistan as well as a handful of women – has the aim of discussing issues such as the extent to which US forces should remain in Afghanistan after 2014. As usual, the Taliban have threatened to kill anyone who attends. One of the major contributors to the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan is France, which has been involved since the outset in 2001. In mid-November, Defence Review Asia had the rare opportunity to spend time with the helicopter battalion ‘Mousquetaire 5’ stationed at the international base adjacent to Kabul airport. In a visit organized by Eurocopter and with the support of the French Defense Ministry, we were fully involved in helicopter activities including mission planning, security briefings, flights, maintenance activities and extensive discussions with pilots, gunners and crewmembers.

16th Nov 2011


 Afghanistan

French helicopters in combat

Byline: Kym Bergmann / Kabul

 

 

Security in the Afghan capital of Kabul has seen further tightening in recent weeks coinciding with the start of a Loya Jirga – or grand council – meeting on November 16.  The three-day event, involving 2,000 delegates – including some from Iran and Pakistan as well as a handful of women – has the aim of discussing issues such as the extent to which US forces should remain in Afghanistan after 2014.  As usual, the Taliban have threatened to kill anyone who attends.

 

One of the major contributors to the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan is France, which has been involved since the outset in 2001.  In mid-November, Defence Review Asia had the rare opportunity to spend time with the helicopter battalion ‘Mousquetaire 5’ stationed at the international base adjacent to Kabul airport.  In a visit organized by Eurocopter and with the support of the French Defense Ministry, we were fully involved in helicopter activities including mission planning, security briefings, flights, maintenance activities and extensive discussions with pilots, gunners and crewmembers.

 

The battalion.

 

The helicopter battalion currently comprises 4 Tigers (up from 3); 4 Gazelles; 3 Caracals and 3 Cougars – which sounds like a wildlife park, but isn’t.  France has around 4,000 troops deployed in and around Kabul as part of Operation Pamir.  This force is known as Brigade La Fayette and is a beefed up contribution to ISAF following a major ambush in 2008 that left nine French soldiers dead and more than 20 wounded.  This episode took place near the ‘Surobi’ forward operating base, to which the author flew as part of the visit.

 

The roles carried out by ‘Mousquetaire 5’ include Close Combat Air Support (CCAS); Immediate extraction of crew (IMEX); Combat Search & Rescue (CSAR); Medical evacuation (MEDEVAC); troop transport; attack; and overwatch, escort and surveillance.  Helicopters almost never operate individually.  A typical configuration involved in deploying troops would be a Caracal or Cougar for transport and with possibly both a Tiger and a Gazelle providing protection.  France places a great deal of emphasis on the early treatment of casualties in the field and the battalion has its own doctor and nurse who frequently participate in missions.

 

Unit composition.

 

The battalion is made up of 150 people, of whom 80% are from the Army.  The unit has a composite structure with people chosen from a wide range of backgrounds.  As well as pilots and gunners, the helicopters are supported by a team of 50 technicians, mechanics and engineers.  In addition, there are mission and communications specialists and a small group of unsmiling ultra-fit commandos, including snipers, whose job is to protect the helicopters – and visiting journalists – when they are on the ground.

 

In an unusual move, members of the battalion deploy for only three months at a time.  This is because France has studied the problem of how to gain maximum efficiency in the field and has come up with the solution of relatively short and frequent tours.  Many of those DRA spoke with were on their third or fourth tour.  The record holder has completed 10  rotations.  ‘Mousquetaire 5’ is on a state of permanent alert and its mission statement is that helicopters have to be airborne in less than 30 minutes and have to be able to reach operational areas in around 20 minutes – at any time of the day or night.  These requirements mean that no one has any real rest time, with personnel either working, eating (briefly) or asleep.  For example, mechanics are scheduled to rest for one morning a week but rarely choose to take even that short break. 

 

Clearly this sort of tempo is unsustainable indefinitely – hence the three month tours.  These might cause some resentment within the Army, which typically deploys for six months at a time – until people see the huge workload being carried by a small number of people.  Because of this system of rotation, 65% of personnel present during the visit had previous experience of serving in Afghanistan.

 

Flying Tigers.

 

The Tiger helicopters are the standard French support and escort machines known as the HAP variant.  Their main armament is a highly accurate 30mm chin mounted cannon; one or two 68mm unguided rocket pods (depending on the air temperature) as well as the ability to carry Mistral air-to-air missiles and other weapons.  The French Tiger does not carry guided missiles, unlike the Australian version that has the gun and Hellfires, or the German version, which has HOT missiles but not the gun (though is considering fitting one), or the Spanish version that has the gun and will receive the Spike missile.

 

The Tigers have a 2-person crew, with the pilot in the front seat and the gunner – who is also the mission commander – in the rear elevated position.  Most other attack helicopters do it the other way with the gunner in the front seat, but Tiger crews maintain that their configuration is preferable because the pilot has the better view.  During operations the gunner rarely looks outside the helicopter, spending all the time watching a number of displays, especially the imagery coming from the Strix sight, which is located on top of the Tiger and under the blades.  Strix contains a thermal imager, tv camera and laser rangefinder.

 

The 30mm gun is aimed and fired by the gunner usually using the Top Owl helmet, but sometimes for even greater accuracy via one of the cockpit displays.  The gun is slaved to the helmet and – as the author can verify – has a virtually instantaneous response to head movements.  The normal operational employment of the gun is over distances between 500 metres and 1.5 kilometres, where it is used with precision.  Even at its maximum useful range of four kilometers, a burst will still land well within a 30 metre “basket”.  Gunners seem to typically use bursts of four or five rounds; which is sufficient for the destruction of light vehicles or of insurgents, even if they have some form of cover.  However, experienced operators can if required trigger a single round – for example for a warning shot - even though the gun only operates in fully automatic mode.

 

The gun is at its most accurate when fired pointing at 90 degrees to the fuselage and aimed slightly downwards.  The aiming system provides the range of the target and automatically compensates for the movement of the helicopter.

 

The 68mm unguided rockets are filled with 9mm diameter tungsten flechettes that burst out about 100 metres from their target.  While not especially accurate, the rockets can be fired in rapid salvoes – with a devastating effect on soft targets.

 

Tiger and Gazelle.

 

The French Army has realized that for many helicopter combat operations the ability to engage with both a gun and guided missiles is a great advantage.  To achieve this, Tigers and Gazelles – which carry four HOT missiles, each with a 6.5 kilogramme warhead – often operate as a deadly combination.  In the longer term the French Tigers, too, will receive missiles – most likely HOT but possibly Hellfire.  The Gazelles also carry a slightly more modern camera than Strix.  Known as ‘Viviane’ it contains an infrared imager as well as a daylight television camera and a rangefinder.  The armament and sensor make the much smaller, older and unarmoured Gazelles an excellent foil for the Tigers.

 

The French “danger close” figures for the weapons are:

 

30mm gun                   70 metres

HOT missile               300 metres

68mm rockets             500 metres

 

In combat the insurgents try and press as close as possible to ISAF troops to make the use of close air support from fixed-wing aircraft with their typically massive blast effect munitions as difficult as possible.  In these circumstances Tigers really come in to their own, especially with their highly accurate gun.

 

Combat intensity

 

The commander of ‘Mousquetaire 5’ LCL Beutter described the combat operations of the past six months as “extremely kinetic”.  The Tigers fired around 8,000 rounds during this time, compared with 4,500 rounds in the six months prior to that.

 

He estimated that the battalion has been responsible for 30% - 40% of all casualties and damage inflicted on the insurgents by French forces.

 

The upsurge in combat is because the French are aggressively pushing into cultivated pockets of land where insurgents previously operated with relative impunity.

 

Transport.

 

The transport helicopters are another vital part of the battalion.  The AS532 Cougar is a well-known upgrade of the Puma – a twin-engine utility helicopter in extremely widespread civil and military use.  The EC725 Caracal is an advanced Cougar (sometimes called the Super Cougar) that was originally designed for Combat Search and Rescue.  As well as being newer than the Cougar it has the further advantage of carrying a forward looking infra red (FLIR) pod, greatly assisting with night time and low visibility operations.

 

All four helicopter types are built by Eurocopter, which makes the task of maintenance and support easier than if they came from different suppliers.

 

Operational conditions.

 

Afghanistan is one of the most difficult helicopter operating environments in the world.  It is mountainous with frequent bad weather.  Operations are often carried out at high altitude and during summer in extreme heat.  Kabul is 1,800 meters above sea level, ‘Surobi’ slightly less at 1,450 – but operations sometimes take place as high as 3,000 meters.  The temperature can rise above 40 degrees. In the last year France has lost two helicopters – one of them a tragic fatality – and extreme weather conditions were a major factor.

 

In addition, there is the all-pervasive fine dust, which works its way into everything.  With particles around 10 microns, it can dramatically reduce visibility and also cause a lot of wear and tear on the helicopters.

 

Conclusion.

 

The brave and hard-working men and women of ‘Mosquetaire 5’ are doing an exceptional job not only of supporting French forces but the broader ISAF mission in Afgha

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