Yesterday we published the first half of our exclusive interview with Major General Olivier Gourlez de la Motte, commander of the ALAT. Here is the second half:
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
the setup of [Muammar]Gaddafi [1942 2011, Libyan dictator] we decided to send helicopters. But these were backing a ground operation undertaken by rebel troops.In Syria there will also doubtless be helicopters before ground troops are deployed. It is a sign of an engagement towards ground combat.
What are the foreign theatres where the French army is deploying its helicopters today?
To date we have some 30 helicopters and around 260 personnel deployed abroad. These aircraftensure that we have a capacity for rapid intervention and undertake punctual operations to try and destabilise the enemy. We have Tigers, Pumas, Cougar, Caymans, Gazelles and Caracals in Mali, Niger and Chad supporting the Barkhane operation. We have a deployment in the Central African Republic supporting the Sangaris operation. We also have some in Djibouti and others are with the Special Forces.
What is the availability of these aircraft?
Excellent! Our aim is to have 80% availability which is a little hard to obtain but we are at between 70/73%. This is a big effort for a relatively small number of aircraft in difficult conditions. But we’re paying for it because it means that we have to really stretch our capacity in mainland France.
We have 305 aircraft in France. Two hundred of these are spread about equally amongst the three conventional force regiments: the 1st, 3rd and 5th RHC [combat helicopter regiments] and the 4th RHFS [special forces‘ helicopter regiment]. From amongst these 200, 28 or 30 are on deployment, and a further 20 or so are on alert in France. Seven (five army Pumas and two from the air force) are for the GIH‘s operational alerts, in other words for the use of the GIGN and two of these Pumas are on permanent alert with the GIGN;
four are for the Sentinelle mission [in which French soldiers are deployed in major French urban areas to protect civilians].
And then we have about 70 in training schools and the 30 others are in turnover. But their availability is only 40%. Of the 70, 30% are with the manufacturer undergoing major overhaul while another 30% are in our regiments but unavailable because maintenance is heavy and that the high availability of those on deployment abroad affects our logistics capacity and maintenance at home. As for the Tigers their availability on the mainland has dropped to under 30%.
Of the 53 Tigers delivered, 22 of them have been sent 44 times on operation since 2009 in Afghanistan, in Libya, in Mali, the Central African Republic and Somalia. By ‘times’ I mean a combat mission that lasts more than two months. And I’m not including exercises or flights demonstrations. There is no other weapon system that is more used. We have a Tiger that returned from Mali with 19 bullet holes in it and we are finding it a little hard to make it flight-worthy again.
The ALAT is 5,000 personnel that includes not only the 1,000 pilots but also 2,200 aeronautical mechanics and 300 land mechanics. So on the theatre we are the ones who do the repairs, except for the highly complex ones. Depending on the situation we can be helped by AirbusHelicopters. They helped a lot in Afghanistan where we had a permanent Airbus Helicopter team of two or three mechanics to look after the Tigers, notably on their structure. And now the manufacturer has sent a team of two or three to work on the Caymans in Gao [Mali]. On the new aircraft they help us to make a diagnosis, to analyse the problem and eventually suggest a repair. But on the aircraft that have been in service with us for a long time we are autonomous.
Does the fact that France is in a state of emergency have any implications for the ALAT?
Well naturally it has implications as we are military. And then we have soldiers who are taking part in Sentinelle now just like the soldiers from other divisions. But in particular we have four helicopters on alert in the regiments in addition to the two that are always on the alert even when we are not in a state of emergency. In the framework of the Army in Contact project we are reflecting as to what shape intervention in the homeland could take and what part helicopters would play. How to undertake surveillance of a zone? How to ensure security? An example: after the Bataclan [the Parisian concert hall attacked by terrorists on 13th November] questions were raised as to how we could improve getting the injured to hospitals. The Armed Forces health service has the competence to triage patients but needs to be able to transport people to hospitals further away from a given zone in order to disencumber the emergency roomsof the hospitals in the immediate vicinity of an event. Helicopters could be the solution in this type of scenario buthow many? We are all reflecting on this type of scenario rather than involved in direct action.
Since 13th November the army’s recruitment offices have been busier than ever. Is that serving the ALAT?
We already have seven or eight candidates for every student pilot recruited. We recruit them either straight out of school or after two years of higher education and they don’t necessarily have to come from a science/maths stream because it is the tests and the psychological and technical evaluations that are more important. Once we’ve chosen our 25 student pilots they go to Coëtquidan for five months and then to Dax. It takes about 14 months to gain a pilot’s licence and then another 12 months (on a Puma or Gazelle) or 18 months (on the Tiger) to acquire a speciality. It’s only after two or two-and-a-half years of training that theywill enter their regiments and start to acquire flight hours. It takes at best six to eight months on the Gazelle to accumulate the flight hours necessary to be deployable, that is to say 140 hours of real flying plus 20 hours in a simulator all withinthe 12 months prior to deployment.
What I would like is that the pilots fly 160 hours plus 20 hours in the simulator to achieve the 180 hours recommended to be perfectly operational and that would enable us to maintain the entire range of our flying know-how. That’s our rule but since operations started in 2009 in Afghanistan people have become more and more specialised and all the different qualifications are not systematically being kept up.
All our recent foreign operations share the characteristic of being in hostile zones: in Afghanistan it was mountains; in Libya our mission was based at sea and undertaken intotal darkness; in Mali we have dust and in all these places we work in very different ways.
Does that mean that your pilots are now specialised?
In theory no but in fact we realise that people’s know-how follows their cycle of deployment. Whether we like it or not they have become specialised even though that is not our rule.