Interview with General de la Motte, commander French Army helicopters

FOB will, from time to time, publish exclusive interviews with personalities from the land and air-land sectors.

We start with the air-land sector and Major General Olivier Gourlez de la Motte, the commander of the ALAT (Aviation Légère de l’Armée de Terre), the French Army’s helicopters, who was kind enough to accept our invitation and inaugurate this new FOB page.

Major General Olivier Gourlez de la Motte, commander of the French Army Light Aviation (ALAT)

Major General Olivier Gourlez de la Motte, commander of the French Army Light Aviation (ALAT)

Olivier Gourlez de la Motte, 57, married and a father of six, did not think he would embrace a military career. In fact, highly unusually for a starred French army officer, he did not graduate from the Ecoles de St Cyr Coëtquidan, France’s answer to Sandhurst or West Point, but rather from Paris-Sud 11 university where in 1981 he graduated with a masters degree in electronics, electrotechnics and robotics. And then, after his obligatory military service, he decided to follow family tradition and joined the cavalry: his father had once been the director of the military cavalry school in Saumur.

In 1986 he went to the initial helicopter pilot training school in Dax (southern France) and followed that with speciality training at the EALAT (Ecole de l’Aviation légère de l’Armée de Terre), the helicopter training school in Luc (southern France) which he then commanded from August 2010 until August 2012, when he was appointed commander of the ALAT at Villacoublay in the western suburbs of Paris. And whenever he can, this combat pilot who flew during the first Gulf War [1991], escapes from his office for a little helicopter flying of his own.

 

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FOB: You are now in your fourth year as commander of the ALAT. Is this exceptional?

Major General de la Motte (smiling): The commander who has stayed the longest so far held this job for five years! The Joint Chief of Staff asked me to stay until summer 2016 to introduce the new structure of the COMALAT [commanding structure of the ALAT] which will result from the introduction of the Army in Contact project.

What will that change for the ALAT?

Many things because, to put it succinctly, whereas so far we have had a vertical command structure, it will become a horizontal one. Let me explain. Today, in my job, I am outside the command chain. I give orders to the ALAT regiments but via either the general in Lille who commands the land forces [Arnaud Sainte-Claire Deville], the director of human resources, or the director of the technical section of the army (STAT) who are responsible for putting my orders into action. I then ensure that these orders are being followed. In other words, the orders go from Villacoublay to Lille, Tours or Satory and then to the regiments. With the new organisation which will be put into place by Summer 2016 and the creation of a joint air combat brigade, orders will go directly from Villacoublay to this 4th air combat brigade (4e BAC), and thus to the regiments and to the ALAT school.

What are the main challenges for you?

I’m very confident in the future even if there are two colossal challenges. I feel that we are at a key moment, just like the one which marked the arrival of the helicopter on the Algerian theatre and it had to prove itself a useful tool. And today we see that this instrument has become indispensable.

The first challenge is that we must learn how to use the new generation aircraft: the Tiger and the Cayman. We have taken delivery of 53 Tigers of the 67 ordered. But we are in the midst of changing the variant so even if we’re under the impression that we’ve been using it for a while, in fact we’re still learning. As for the Cayman, we have 17 of the 74 ordered so we are right at the beginning of our apprenticeship on thisnew generation aircraft. The second challenge is to ensure that we have some 30 aircraft systematically out on operations. This is a very important volume of aircraft to continuously maintainout on deployment.

To give us an idea: how many aircraft did you have in Afghanistan?

We had about 15 aircraft including five Tigers. And in Mali we reached a peak of 40. We have between 28 to 30 in France ready to fly, particularly as we have those that have been on alert since 13th November.

Tiger helicopters deployed in Mali with the Serval operation

Tiger helicopters deployed in Mali with the Serval operation

 

What happened to your idea to put all land, air and sea helicopters under a single command?

That cell (the CIH) was created in 2009 and dissolved in 2013. It was set up as a command inside the joint headquarters but without having anywhere near all the prerogatives of a command. And when we were discussing the move to Balard [the new Defence Ministry quarter in the south-west of Paris] the question was raised: had this command led to everything we had expected regarding joint synergies? Things were done thanks to this command such as joint work concerning the [helicopter joint group]GIH which is the one that supplies the GIGN [the gendarmerie SWAT team]. There were a few synergies concerning special forces but in fact what played heavily was that the COMALATbecame more and more important so it was finally decided that we would do things differently. But we never gave this command the scope I’d hoped for.

Still, many things already happen jointly. Procurement, for example, is handled by the DGA [French procurement agency] and the joint headquarters; maintenance and repairs are done through the defence ministry’s integrated structure to maintain aeronautical equipment in operational condition, the SIMMAD (Structure intégrée de maintien en condition opérationnelle des matériels aéronautiques du ministère de la défense); the military accident bureau is also joint; helicopter pilots of the three armies are trained by the Army whilst the mechanics are trained by the Air Force. So almost all the pillars that determine a capacity are already joint.

There remain two domains. Employment of skills, which are really specificto each army, so for us it is air-land, for the air force it is air missions, for the navy it is air-maritime. Even if we try to have synergies, employment tends to remainspecific. And then there is the human resources department which will recruit based on the statutes and the career profiles of the Army.

Are there French army helicopters in Syria?

No, there are no defence ministry helicopters for the moment but the possibility is being studied. The main reason is that France has not yet decided to send ground troops to Syria. Were this to change, then the question of sending helicopters would be raised.

But in Libya there were no ground troops and yet helicopters participated intensely in the Harmattan mission.

That is a fair remark. I would look at the question from another angle by saying that in Libya we were undertaking an operation and then in order to completely dismantle…

To find out the rest of the General’s answer to this remark come back tomorrow for the second half.