Afghanistan - The year of the Tiger

Almost six hundred flight hours logged in roughly six months of combat operations with a daily 93% availability - this is the remarkable result achieved to date by the first operational EC 665 Tiger detachment deployed to Afghanistan since July of last year.

26th May 2010

Almost six hundred flight hours logged in roughly six months of combat operations with a daily 93% availability - this is the remarkable result achieved to date by the first operational EC 665 Tiger detachment deployed to Afghanistan since July of last year. And events moved quickly as on August 20, 2009 the EC665 Tigers of the 5e RHC fired their guns in anger for the first time against the Taliban, thus marking the baptism of fire for the hi-tech Franco-German attack helicopter.

Now starting its second personnel rotation, the three-ship Tiger detachment, which is part of the French Armed Forces Bathélico or Task Force Mousquetaire fighting alongside ISAF, pursues its task steadfastly in support of French military operations against the Taliban east of Kabul.

Recently in Paris, during one of the French Ministry of Defence’s press briefings, Lieutenant-Colonel François d’Argaignon, the first commander of Task Force Mousquetaire - just returned from Kabu -, gave a detailled first account of his helicopter batallion’s actions and above all about the Eurocopter EC 665 Tiger’s first operational fielding ever. Since August 20 last year, the Tigers were involved in actual combat on about 18 occasions during a total of 240 missions, generally conducted at an average altitude of 10,000 feet. (KYM TO KATRINA, BPS) "Something which can be considered extremely demanding for a rotorcraft, but everything went well and beyond expectations" says Dominique Maudet, in charge of the French Tiger programme at EADS, also quite happily surprised by the outstanding reliability and serviceability of the Franco-German helicopter, which at one time was maligned in the foreign aviation press for being too complicated and too expensive.

In strict accordance with the Chinese calendar

The first French Tiger deployment ran from July 9, 2009, to January 10, 2010, a second is now in process which should last until next July, amazingly enough in full coincidence with the Chinese calendar marking the Year of the Tiger !

Despatched to the Afghan theatre on July 25 by a single chartered Russian An-124 flight from Tarbes-Ossun Airport near Pau — home base of the 5e Régiment d’Hélicoptères de Combat— the three Tiger HAP helicopters earmarked for deployment required minimum dismantling, mostly their main rotor blades and a few side mounted items, to get onboard the big Russian airlifter. "The boarding operation in Tarbes required 3 hours and it then only took us 2 hours to disembark the Tigers and their impedimenta upon arrival in Kabul on July 26" said d’Argaignon.

The three machines were readied in a few hours and the first local flight was performed on July 30 once the crew had settled down and had gone through their local flight schedules. (KYM TO KATRINA, BPS) It was followed on August 6 by three days of gun and rocket live firing at the Darulaman gunnery range near Bagram air base and, on August 10, the Tiger reached its Full Operational Capability (FOC) after 50 hours were logged on the type, 20% of those at night. Ten days later on August 20 the Tiger’s first combat mission occurred, also at night.

Support needed for the EC 665 Tiger was fairly minimal with only one crew per machine despatched to Kabul, i.e six pilots in total. While a handful of mechanics and armourers from the 5e RHC, assisted by three Eurocopter civilian technicians, plus one from Sagem and one more from Turbomeca - all volunteers - rounded out the ground crew. As the Tiger HAPs always work in tandem, only two aircraft are required for any mission, the third ship being readied as a backup, complete with its two-man crew. For the technicians, the body of the Tiger, made up to 80% carbon fiber reinforced polymer and kevlar (plus 11% aluminium and 6% titanium) requires almost no particular care. It has proved trouble-free during the hottest and coldest periods of the year in Afghanistan (+40°C/-20°C). The main and tail rotors, made from fiber-plastic, arebable to withstand combat damage and bird strikes and have also proved extremely rugged in war action, requiring minimal servicing.

All in all, the French Tiger crew are very pleased with their new machine which they now consider the true successor of the late SEPECAT Jaguar and its exceptionally lethal 30mm guns which brought havoc in the ranks of rebels during the French African wars of the seventies and eighties. (KYM TO KATRINA, BPS) Just like the Jaguar, the Tiger is a good and sturdy machine well suited for combat. As noted d’Argaignon: "The Taliban are now quite familiar with the Tiger’s silhouette and skedaddle every time our machines enter the combat zone, so fearful they are of the helicopter’s 30mm automatic canon!".

While the Tiger has a conventional helicopter gunship configuration of the two crew sitting in tandem, it is somewhat different from other existing attack rotorcraft in that the pilot is in the front seat and the gunner is in the back (unlike all other current attack helicopters like the Mi-24 and AH-64). Furthermore, the seats are offset to opposite sides of the centerline in order to improve the view forward for the gunner in the back. This lay-out has proved itself in actual combat action, with the gunner having the largest field of view available and great observing capacities with his overhead Sagem Strix sight situated almost in line with the rotor head. As a German Eurocopter engineer said before : "The Tiger is not intended to be a flyer’s sweetheart first, but a gun platform. Therefore, it’s the gunner who’s entitled to hold the top position!" In reality it appears that the EC 665 Tiger is both a fantastic machine to fly and a superb firing platform, according to the first reports coming from Afghanistan.

Here come the Mousquetaires

Task Force Mousquetaire is the name given during the autumn 2009 to the French "Bataillon d’Hélicoptères" set up in 2007 in Afghanistan to provide airlift, reconnaissance and fire support to the 3,750 troops deployed by Paris within ISAF. Manned by 136 personnel, it is based at Kabul International Airport (KAIA) with eleven rotorcraft : three EC 665 Tiger, three SA342 Gazelle Viviane, three EC 725 Caracal and a pair of AS 532 Cougar helicopters. All belong to ALAT, the French Army Light Aviation unit, except for one Caracal which remains part of the French Air Force. With the exception of the one from the French Air Force EH 1/67 squadron from Cazaux, the Caracals all belong to the ALAT 5e RHC from Pau as do the two Cougars ; the Gazelles are those of the ALAT 3e RHC from Étain-Rouvre. To be precise, the three EC 665 Tigre HAPs despatched to Central Asia belong to the Bataillon de Reconnaissance et d’Appui which is one of three batallions making the 5e Régiment d’Hélicoptères de Combat (RHC) from Pau. All are recent fully operational Standard 1 machines delivered from Eurocopter’s Marignane assembly line in early 2009 : mainframe serial numbers 2023 (F-MBHP), 2024 (F-MBHO) and 2025 (F-MBHQ).

TF Mousquetaire is organically attached to Regional Command East (RC-E) based at Bagram AB and comes under the direct control of Task Force La Fayette (the French military contingent in Afghanistan) headquartered at FOB Morales Frazier in the Kapisa valley, East of Kabul. Main missions assigned to TF Mousquetaire, by order of importance, are : reconnaissance and scouting with the Gazelles, direct fire support and close combat attacks with the Tigers, airlift and tactical transport using the Cougars and Caracals, and Medevac using whatever is at hand for the job : Cougars for day missions, Caracals for night sorties. For their daily task, six machines are on constant 24-hour Quick Reaction Alert at KAIA : two Cougars or Caracal with a medical team and one commando squad ; two armed Tigers and two recce Gazelles.

All these machines operate in a very demanding theatre which can be summarized as “hot, high and dusty”, in short just what rotocraft pilots usually hate to deal with… (KYM TO KATRINA, BPS) KAIA is situated at 1,800 metres (about 6,000 ft) and summer temperatures in the Afghan capital frequently reach 40°C (or 100°F) while winters are freezing cold. Moreover this region of the world is characterized by extremely dark nights (Levels 4 and 5) which make use of night vision equipment (NVG) mandatory for aircrew during their nocturnal sorties. The only positive from an operational viewpoint for TF Mousquetaire is that its area of responsibility is rather small with no likely action zone situated beyond a 20 min. reach, the 280km/h (150 kt) speed of the Tiger being very useful in these circumstances. However it is one of the most mountainous regions facing ISAF airmen with peaks over 15,000 feet nearly all around.

If the air threat from the Taliban has been virtually non existent so far, according to LtCol d’Argaignon, French helicopter crews are still wary not to attract enemy light rifle or machine-gun fire -- and above all RPG shots which have been so detrimental to other allied forces operating in Afghanistan. (KYM TO KATRINA, BPS) This is done by always flying different and unexpected routes, at full speed in the nap of the earth. LtCol d’Argaignon said that no French helicopter yet has recorded any enemy hits, with the single exception of a near miss on a Caracal during a night combat egress in the Surobi valley when inboarding commandos saw a Taliban-launched RPG-7 grenade explode just behind the tail rotor. Luckily both machine and men survived unscathed.

All sorties against the Taliban are flow using two Tigers and two Caracals (or two Cougars, but only during the day). Loaded with commandos, the Caracals generally bristle with machine guns which are used for soldiers’ protection during ingress and egress actions, while the Tiger circles high above.

Fighting sand wear

Among the outstanding pieces of equipment used by the French ALAT EC 665 Tigers is the Centrisep Engine Advanced Protection System (EAPS) for Tiger Series. This system designed specifically for the EC 665 Tiger helicopter is an all-weather, fit-and-forget filtration solution used to prevent airborne contaminants from entering the two MTR390-2C turboshaft engines powering the rotorcraft. This virtually maintenance-free system (designated QB0677 for the port unit and QB0678 for the starboard one) has provided extremely effective protection from excessive wear and avoid loss of engine power when operating from dusty LZs. The result is increased operational availability. The oustanding performances of this advanced dust separator were first proven by rig test, where an MTU/Turbomeca/Rolls-Royce MTR390 engine protected by this equipment survived ten hours of continuous brownout conditions with only 3 % power loss due to erosion! A total of 156 kg (334 lb) of Arizona Coarse Test Dust —a standard test dust very similar to the type of dust which challenges the engine intakes in desert operation— were fed to the engine air intake during that trial. According to Pierre-Yves Jan, from Pall Aerospace Europe, 96,7% in weight of this test dust is continuously removed by the Centrisep EAPS, with hardly any particle above 10 microns in size in the air getting into the engine. The result is in an excellent protection of all the metallic moving parts of the powerplant, achieved without any maintenance burden on the operator. The Pall engine air particle separator (EAPS) technology thus clearly extends the life of a helicopter engine against erosion. Using a streamlined handed fan exploiting centrifugal force to scavenge dust and solid particles (including corrosive salt spray), this fairly new equipment, selected also by the Australian and Spanish for their Tigers, has passed U.S. MIL STD 810 Dust Test.

Indeed operational conditions encountered by the French ALAT helicopters, and notably the Tigers, in Afghanistan are pretty rough, the famous Afghan khâk (or fine dust, in dâri language, from where comes the now universal English word khakis for dust coloured uniforms) being another silent killer omnipresent on the battlefield. This khâk which is mostly made of silica powder (or silicon dioxyde, SiO2) is nothing more than fine quartz with great abrasive power which takes it toll on helicopter engines and rotors. As one maintenance crew puts it : "Dust in engines here in Afghanistan is like cholesterol deposits in human arteries, it kills in total silence!" Pall’s Centrisep air cleaners are in wide use in the French Defences Forces equipping all types of helicopters deployed to desertic areas, in Africa, the Middle-East or Central Asia.

Only commissioned for combat at the end of 2007 in French Army service, the Tiger HAP (hélicoptère appui-protection) has revealed itself in Afghanistan to be a formidable day/night combat machine well adapted to attack distant targets with its swivelling helmet-controlled Nexter 30mm automatic canon placed under the nose. (KYM TO KATRINA, BPS) The gun aimed by the gunner’s Thales Top-Owl integral helmet sighting system is said to work "by the book". In fact, the Tiger crew have found the canon to be extremely precise and easy to aim. A total of 450 x 30mm HE rounds are embarked for each flight, while only 12 (68mm) TDA unguided rockets are carried for one mission, rather than a possible maximum of 44. This smaller number is considered enough, since never has any Tiger before fire more than 8 rockets in anger in a single sortie, so destructive is the power of the new generation 68mm weapon and so accurate the Tiger’s aiming system.

The Tigers deploy on demand to various French-manned Forward Operating Bases in the Kapisa and Surobi areas, mainly FOB Nijrab, and FOB Surobi, or FOB Tora or FOB Morales Frazier. Long distance observation and aiming capacities of the Tigre, thanks to its day/night Sagem Strix headsight, has become singularly useful in Afghanistan where the air is devoid of moisture most of the year, therefore enhancing infrared vision. Although the Tigers are fitted with a complete EWS electronic warfare suite, which includes a radar warning receiver, DAL laser warner, MILDS missile launch detector, a central processing unit and Saphir-M chaff/flare dispenser, only this last is widely used during sorties, especially during landings and take-offs from FOBs where traditional brownout require extreme awareness while reducing visibility to spot surrounding dangers.

All French Tiger HAPs are powered by a pair of MTU/Turbomeca/Rolls-Royce MTR390-2C turboshaft engines rated at 960kW (1,285shp) which have proved very reliable and power-packed on the Afghan theatre. Expected for a time to be the weak link of the Tiger, the engine's Full Authority Digital Engine Control, FADEC, has shown it can be trusted. This is considered to be a very good surprise for the state of the art Franco-German attack helicopter, today in service with the Australian (Tiger ARH), French (Tigre HAP), German (Tiger UHT) and Spanish (Tigre HAD) Armies.

Next in line to join the Tiger fray on the Afghan theatre should soon be those of the Australian Army for which no deployment date has been yet given, although next summer could well see the first kangaroo adorned Tiger ARHs arrive in Kandahar. If ISAF operations last several years more, the Spanish Tiger HADs should certainly follow, once the more powerful Tiger HAD is fully certified. The reign of the Tiger has begun. Moreover in its native region!


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