“The NH90 was not thought out for special forces, some equipment is missing,” warned Commander of Special Operations Major-General Grégoire de Saint-Quentin, during his very interesting 1 June hearing by the French national Assembly’s Commission for National Defence and the Armed Forces.
“We are holding talks with the armed forces and with the DGA [procurement agency] in order to improve the situation,” he added. “I’ll take the radar as an example: we ought to have better capabilities in forward looking infrared radar (FLIR) which enables long distance observation of obstacles and the enemy, and to land safely with no visibility in the darkest night and in dust. We would also need to move the weapon port in order to have free access to the doors which is essential for commandos,” he explained.
“This type of aircraft is vital to ensure that the COS [special operations command] remains at the right level of requirements and capabilities for the next 15 years,” he stressed. The requirement is for about 24 aircraft but to meet special operations’ needs it must improve its capabilities, given that it was not initially designed with these types of missions in mind. That means undertaking several changes concerning, and the list is not exhaustive, avionics, communications, weapon systems or equipment to optimise Special Patrol Extraction/Insertion (SPIE). “The brief is not yet finished but in my eyes it is particularly important because giving the 4e RHFS [4th Special Forces Helicopter Regiment] a unified fleet of machines adapted to its missions, so that we can then proceed with regrouping the Caracals for the EH 1/67 “Pyrenees” [Air Force helicopter squadron], will considerably improve the aeromobility of the special forces and will allow the fleets to be homogenised, which is a guarantee of efficiency,” he told the deputies.
Talking of the Caracals and answering a question posed by Republican Jean-François Lamour, the general explained that “we had (…) identified weaknesses around the air intake filters, which was damaging the turbines, attacked as they were by sand and dust. We’ve taken measures to redress this situation and today I’m not getting wind of any excessive wear on the turbines.” He added that “more broadly, in the Sahel-Saharan band we are arming an important group of helicopters, regrouping the Caracals and the Cougars, so that we will always have at our disposal a minimum number of machines to use. However, this objective is not always attained because our availability depends on a great number of things, in particular maintenance. In this sector, the complete manning of certain key positions is not always achieved – I’m thinking in particular of the documentalists who verify all the maintenance operations – and that does impact our availability despite the exemplary dedication of our maintenance teams.”
Still talking about helicopters, but addressing the matter of communications, de Saint-Quentin said he had “requested that we be able to maintain a satellite link with our Caracals and our Cougars, because when we undertake a 1,500km raid at night, all it takes is for the C-130 to be unable to play the role of relay for us to lose the link.” And, he added, “this type of situation worries me on two fronts, first because the mission can evolve once underway, and second because we would not be immediately warned if there was a mechanical problem. This situation is unsatisfactory and solutions are currently being studied by industry.” He warned the deputies that “when things are not anticipated from the start, then the process of adaptation is long and costly.”
We do not forget at FOB that the three branches of the armed forces participate in special operations but here we are particularly interested in the army and it has set up a key capability, the Land Special Forces (FST), grouped together under a command which was created on 23 June.
At the beginning of the year, according to the general, 75% of the planned increase in personnel for the FST had been reached. “Added to the increase in numbers at the 13e RDP [13th Parachute Dragoon Regiment] and the 1er RPIMA [1st Marine Infantry Parachute Regiment], a particular effort was made on the maintenance of the 4e RHFS helicopters with the transfer, then the consolidation, of a dedicated maintenance structure.”
Come back tomorrow for the 2nd and last part of this article.