French Tigers In Afghanistan

By Jean-Michel Guhl | December 1, 2009
Send Feedback

Since last summer, the French Army Aviation Légère de l’Armée de Terre (ALAT) has taken the first step to adding a new rotary recce and strike capacity to its forces now operating in Afghanistan in support of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF).

Three Eurocopter EC665 Tiger helicopters arrived in Kabul on July 25, marking the first deployment of the helicopter type in a war theater. French Army Chief of Staff Gen. Elrick Irastorza declared initial operational capability on Aug. 6. Full operational capability of the Tiger HAP combat support variant followed four days later after 50 flight hours, 20 percent at night.

According to the French Ministry of Defense, the three Tiger HAPs and supporting equipment, transported from France by a single rotation of chartered Russian Antonov An-124 airlifters, will top-off the rotary element made available to the coalition, known as the Bataillon Hélicoptères d’Afghanistan. The unit includes eight other aircraft — three EC725 Caracal medium lift, all-weather transport helicopters, two AS532 Cougars and three day/night reconnaissance SA342 Gazelles, already in Kabul with the French detachment. The Caracals belong to the French Air Force EH 1/67 squadron from Cazaux; the Cougars and Gazelles belong to the Army, hailing from Phalsbourg and Étain-Rouvre, respectively. The three Tiger HAPs dispatched to Central Asia belong to the 2nd Escadrille of the 5th Helicopter Regiment at Pau, known as the 5th Régiment d’Hélicoptères de Combat (RHC).

Only commissioned for combat at the end of 2007 in French Army service, after a long and protracted development of its digital systems and engine flight control suite, the Tiger HAP today is a formidable day/night combat machine capable of withstanding adverse fire and returning fire with its swiveling, helmet-controlled Nexter 30mm automatic cannon positioned under the nose, as well as delivering up to 44 (68mm) TDA unguided rockets in support of ground forces.

In Afghanistan, the main mission of the French Tigers encompasses fire support, air escort of transport helicopters, road convoy reconnaissance, scout sorties, IED suppression, combat search and rescue (CSAR) support and quick reaction alert (QRA) in the Regional Control-Centre zone (RC-C Kabul). The Tiger detachment is based at Kabul International Airport (KAIA) and deploys on request to various French-manned forward operating bases in the Kapisa and Surobi areas, mainly FOB Nijrab, and FOB Surobi, or FOB Tora.

Long distance observation and aiming capacities of the Tiger, thanks to its day/night Sagem Strix headsight, have become singularly handy in Afghanistan, where the air is devoid of moisture most of the year, therefore enhancing infrared vision. In its combat support role, the Tiger HAP/HAD uses its 30mm gun for short-range engagements with 270 HE rounds, TDA 68mm rockets at medium and long range, and eventually (when delivered under Foreign Military Sale) U.S.-made Hellfire II missiles at long range against hard targets, and Mistral missiles to engage airborne threats.

A combination of either four Mistral missiles and 44 rockets or just 68 unguided rockets in four pods can be carried, or just Hellfire IIs and Mistral AAMs. Only one weapon can be activated at a time. TDA Armaments, a Thales subsidiary, is developing for the EC665 a new laser-guided 68mm rocket — similar to the new Lockheed Martin DAGR semi-active laser guidance kit — which should provide the HAP more firepower and more precision in dealing with ground targets than with the current unguided AMV model. All of TDA’s new Tiger 68mm rockets will be of the latest ignition by induction and connector-less type, which produces no scrap-inducing tail rotor wear or damage. To cope with the high altitude in Afghanistan — Kabul is situated at about 6,000 feet altitude — the French Tigers only use their gun and a total of 18 unguided 68mm rockets to improve autonomy during their average three-hour sorties.

European Aeronautic Defence and Space (EADS) is providing the electronic warfare suite for the Tiger, which includes a DAL radar warning receiver, MILDS missile launch detector developed by EADS Defence Electronics, central processing unit from Thales, and Saphir-M chaff/flare dispenser from MBDA. Spain’s Indra Sistemas is providing the electronic warfare suite for the Spanish Tigers. In fact, all EC665 Tigers differ at this level, with nationally produced subsystems having the customer’s preference in Australia, France, Germany and Spain.

Currently, all versions of the HAP and German UHT Tiger are powered by two MTU/Turbomeca/Rolls-Royce MTR390-2C turboshaft engines rated at 960kW (1,285 shp). The future Tiger HAD will have two MTR390-E enhanced engines rated at 1,094kW (1,467 shp). Only five such engines have been produced in pre-series form and had not yet flown, as the first Spanish Tiger HAD is conducting all weapons’ tests using standard engines, awaiting availability of the definitive production "E" model. On request, this engine also will be capable of retrofit on all versions of the Tiger, but at the cost of adapting the fuel system and Full Authority Digital Engine Control (FADEC).

To avoid coming to grips with the very abrasive, omnipresent Afghan "khak," or dust, and to ensure full protection of their engines, the three French ALAT Tigers are equipped with special streamlined sand filters that eliminate all ingestion risks when operating from unprepared landing pads.

Prior to the first deployment, French Army rotary operations’ specialists studied in great detail the recent good and bad experiences of British and American helicopter crews in Iraq, said Col. Gilles Darricau. The colonel, head of the 5e RHC at Pau, expected his Tiger crews to come under enemy fire at any time.

"Over the past months, many of our helicopters — Gazelles or Caracals — flying daily in Afghanistan have come under Taliban fire, mostly from rifle or hand-held weapons, including RPG-7s," Darricau said. "We, however, expect heavier fire from the rebels against our Tigers, once the Taliban come to understand the high value of such a helicopter. We know the Afghan theater is dangerous for our helicopter crews, but we are trained to face all risks."

After initial training and shooting exercises Aug. 6 and 10, conducted at the Darulaman and Bagram gunnery ranges of the Afghan National Army (ANA) and involving ISAF tactical air controller parties and U.S. procedures supervisors, the three Tiger HAPs deployed in Kabul were cleared for operations with ISAF troops in mid-August. On Aug. 20, the Tigers of the 5th RHC fired their guns in anger for the first time during action against the Taliban east of Kabul.

Night Attack

The deployment of the French Army Tigers was accomplished just before the Afghan presidential elections of Aug. 20 — an event which, to the frustration of the Taliban leadership, was not largely boycotted by voters around the country. Indeed, to prove their might and ability to terrorize the population, a party of Taliban attacked the Tora French Army post, held by Légionnaires of the 2nd company of the 2nd REI (Régiment Etranger d’Infanterie) from Nîmes, in the Surobi valley. The Aug. 22 night attack on the fortified peak, situated at an altitude of some 4,500 feet above the valley, was warded off by a combination of forces coordinated by FOB Tora’s operations officer, through the new NCW-enabled regimental command and control system of the French Army. This meant repelling the enemy using flares and mortar rounds, all the while maneuvering in total darkness a pair of Tiger HAPs toward the attackers using both radio and tactical data links.

Within a couple of hours, the Taliban were chased away and defeated by several rounds of well-aimed 68mm rocket fire, making it clear that a reprise of their August 2008 ambush in the Uzbeen valley, in which 10 French soldiers were killed, is unlikely today.

As of Oct. 15, the three Tigers had logged a total of 263 flight hours, including 64 hours at night. Since Aug. 20, the Tigers were involved in actual combat on five occasions, generally at an average altitude of 10,000 feet.

Next to bring Tigers to the Afghan theater should be the Australian Army, which had planned a tentative deployment date this winter, pending a declaration of initial operational capability of the Lockheed Martin AGM-114 Hellfire II missile on the Tiger ARH. Compared to the French Army, which will only be able to use the Hellfire II on its future Tiger HADs in 2012, the Tiger ARH already totes the powerful and versatile U.S.-made air-to-ground missile.

Let’s recall that to this day, the Australian Army has accepted some 15 Tiger ARH armed reconnaissance helicopters, including the instrumented ARH prototype (A30-001) at RAAF Edinburgh, South Australia, a machine used for equipment and armament testing. Present Australian Tiger ARH training is established at Oakey, Queensland, with six "Aussie Tigers" along with the Full Flight Mission Simulator (FFMS) supporting current Australian aircrew transition training as well as ground crew training.

As of this writing, the Australian Tiger fleet had flown in excess of 4,000 hours and undergone initial transition into operational service with the deployment of the first Tiger ARHs to the 1st Aviation Regiment’s 161st Squadron (of Vietnam war fame) at Robertson Barracks in Darwin in August last year.

A second unit — 162nd Squadron — should become operational within the Regiment this year, with responsibility to support operational training and mission preparation.

In-service support is provided by Australian Aerospace (Eurocopter Australia) and managed through the ARH Management Unit established at Brisbane Airport, where the logistics and engineering support organization for the ARH system is based.

French Tiger HAD Attack Helicopters Will Carry Hellfire II Missile

On the basis of commonality with other NATO air arms, let us remember here that the government of France officially selected Lockheed Martin’s AGM-114 Hellfire II missile system to equip its HAD Tiger attack helicopter fleet in 2006. The precision-strike missile is to be procured under a foreign military sale for the French Army, which will field a total of 40 Tigers after 2016. The initial fielding of the Hellfire II in France is expected to be completed by 2012 using both the "Kilo" and "Mike" variants of the AGM-114.

Hellfire II missiles will provide the French HAD Tigers with a highly effective precision strike capability, said Doug Terrell, international business development director for Tactical Missiles at Lockheed Martin Missiles and Fire Control.

"Hellfire II has an extensive combat record, with more than 3,000 rounds expended yet in the Global War on Terrorism in Iraq and Afghanistan," Terrell said. "Its modular design not only lends itself to future upgrades, but enables Hellfire to engage a broad target set."

The modular Hellfire 2 includes three semi-active laser warhead variations: (1) the high-explosive anti-tank (HEAT) missile, or AGM-114K, which defeats all known and projected armored threats; (2) the AGM-114M blast fragmentation missile, which defeats "soft" targets such as boats, buildings, bunkers and light armored vehicles; and (3) the metal augmented charge (MAC) missile, or AGM-114N, which defeats enclosures, caves and enemy personnel housed therein.

Another key factor influencing the French decision to procure the AGM-114 is the missile’s employment flexibility. Guided precisely by a laser spot pointed on the target and using a proven semi-active laser seeker, the Hellfire enables last-second diversion of the missile should the need arise. Additionally, the missile’s semi-active laser seeker responds to both remote and autonomous laser designators, enabling Tiger HAD pilots to achieve positive target identification prior to missile launch, a mandatory condition under current ISAF rules of engagement. This feature, combined with the AGM-114’s diversion capability and three interchangeable warheads, ensures strict rules of engagement are met while minimizing collateral damage.

Eurocopter, under contract with the multi-national European Organization for Joint Armament Cooperation, has begun integration of the Hellfire II on the Tiger HAD at its facility in Marignane, France, with Lockheed Martin’s support. Ground tests started in late October 2007, followed by flight tests in March 2008. The AGM-114 is currently fielded with the armed forces of the United States and 14 other nations by Hellfire Systems LLC, with Lockheed Martin performing all of the work scope. The Tiger is one of the first non-U.S. combat helicopters to use the Hellfire 2 missile, along with the Italian Agusta AW129 Mangusta. — Jean-Michel Guhl

Receive the latest avionics news right to your inbox